The margins are fine in knockout football. South Africa know this better than most nations.
They lost four Africa Cup of Nations finals between 2000 and 2018. And after matching powerhouse the Netherlands in the 2023 World Cup round of 16, those fine margins saw them exit the tournament after a 2-0 loss.
The result boiled down to fluffed chances and defensive blunders. No one expected them to be here in the first place, however, so making it this far was a proud moment in itself for Banyana Banyana.
“We missed an opportunity to go through. But as much as it’s painful I’m proud of each and every one of us for working so hard,” Hildah Magaia told DW.
“The round of 16 is a milestone for us. I just want to say thank you to the coaches and the fans out there for supporting us, rallying behind us every day. It means a lot to us.”
It was the first time South Africa had made the knockouts of a World Cup. Yet there was still a feeling of “what if.” What if Thembi Kgatlana had buried one of her four chances? What if keeper Kaylin Swart hadn’t let the ball slip through her hands?
But even more so, what if South Africa had a fully-professional league? What if more players were playing overseas? What if they received similar support and funding to teams like the Netherlands?
“To the sponsors, I don’t know how you can ignore something special like this,” coach Desiree Ellis said post-match. “I don’t know how you can’t assist in getting us to climb the ladder. We still have players who have a 9-to-5 job and then go to train in the evening.
“That’s unacceptable. The corporate world needs to stand up and take notice.”
Visions need to be matched by action
Just four years ago, South Africa had yet to make their debut at the World Cup and didn’t even have a national women’s league.
But in 2019 they competed in their debut tournament and the SAFA Women’s League was introduced.
Under “Vision 2030,” the South African Football Federation (SAFA) have targeted fully professionalizing the league and continuing to grow grassroots opportunities for players, coaches, and referees.
“We have Sundowns, TS Galaxy and Royal AM with women’s teams and over the next few years the focus of women’s football is going to change,” SAFA president Danny Jordaan told The Sunday Times newspaper in February.
The league is currently one of the best-organized on the continent, while the Mamelodi Sundowns won the CAF Women’s Champions League in 2021 and were runners-up in 2022.
There have certainly been big improvements, but there’s still a disconnect between the pronounced lofty goals and definitive commitments.
A dispute over player payments leading into the 2023 World Cup marred preparations with the squad boycotting a final warmup match against Botswana. The players were not only angry that contracts had not been organized for the tournament, but that the friendly was held at a tiny stadium 50 kilometers (31 miles) outside Johannesburg on a poor pitch.
The resolution only came when billionaire Patrice Motsepe, who owns the Sundowns and is president of the Confederation of African Football, intervened and made a $320,000 (€291,000) donation to the team.
On-pitch success deserves recognition
Despite the chaos, Banyana Banyana were able to move past the disruption and perform beyond anyone’s expectations.
They were unlucky to lose 2-1 against world number three Sweden, were cruising against Argentina until defensive errors led to a 2-2 draw, and sprung a mighty upset with a late 3-2 win over Italy. Against the Netherlands, they again did themselves proud.
“We knew at the start of this tournament that no team could match our speed. We had to be direct, we knew they would have the most [possession],” Kgatlana told DW.
“In the first half we had a lot of chances and [the Netherlands] didn’t know how to deal with that. We did our best and we played well.”
Their excellent World Cup run follows the incredible success of 2022, where they finally broke their Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) hoodoo, beating Morocco 2-1 in the final to lift their first major piece of silverware.
Now the team wants that success to be matched off the field.
“It’s up to the authorities, the sponsors, it’s their responsibility now,” Kgatlana said.
“They’ve been talking for many, many years about women’s football, but at the end of the day there has to be people stepping up.”
The signs are promising, but more of the Banyana Banyana require exposure to professional conditions and top-level football. Only eight of the squad currently play overseas and their latest young gun Wendy Shongwe, who’s based domestically, told DW it’s essential to reach the next level.
“It’s very important for South Africa to get more professional leagues for women. As you can see the standard in the World Cup is so high. So we need those leagues to be implemented so that we can compete more,” she said.
World Cup 2027 on the horizon
One of the biggest advocates for women’s football is Desiree Ellis. She’s seen it all. From flouting Apartheid rules to play football matches with black and white women, to debuting in South Africa’s first ever women’s national team 30 years ago.
“She’s marvelous,” Magaia said. “She’s always encouraging us to do our best. Every day she’s motivating us to keep on going and trust in our abilities. She’s also a mother to us outside the field. It’s not only inside the field but also outside.”
Ellis has coached the team since 2016 and brought this current crop through the 2019 World Cup, the 2022 WAFCON victory and now a historic progression to the knockouts.
“I think as a group, we need to hold our heads up high,” she said. “When we qualified for the last 16, the whole country went crazy and I’m expecting them to go crazy when we get back.”
The next big goal on the horizon to keep pushing women’s football is not only qualifying for the 2027 World Cup, but hosting it. Only Europe, North America and Asia have ever hosted a World Cup, meaning FIFA could look to broaden their reach at the next edition.
Brazil have submitted an official bid alongside South Africa, with another two joint-bids coming from Mexico and the US, and Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.
“We hosted the 2010 World Cup and we know what it’s like,” Kgatlana told DW.
“It would be amazing, especially for women’s football, because we’re hoping that it grows now. We’ve made so many strides.”
A home World Cup would be a massive boon, but there’s still plenty of movement to be made before South Africa can truly reach their potential. While the team has shown it can be competitive on the world stage, those fine margins on the field won’t disappear unless they’re eradicated off it.
Edited by: James Thorogood