Vera Pauw, Banyana Banyana’s new Dutch coach, likes to tell her players they’re frogs. Should they forget, all her charges have little magnetic frogs stuck to fridges or mirrors in their hotel rooms as reminders. “We are just like frogs, climbing the ladder of international football,” she tells me, her voice sprinkled with the kind of gaiety you trust her players find infectious.
Despite impressions to the contrary, Pauw is no eccentric European with folksy ways. She was the Netherlands’ first professional woman footballer (playing in Italy for a year) before being persuaded back home by the KNVB, the national federation, to help the women’s game onto a firmer footing.
“I always say that my orange heart was bigger than my money heart,” she tells me. “To me the sport was the big thing – it wasn’t about the money.”
Pauw was born in Amsterdam but when she was small her family moved close to Utrecht, in the centre of the country. She grew up playing street football and took over from Ruud Krol as the highest-capped footballer in the history of the Dutch game at the time, playing 89 times for the Netherlands.
Mobile and flexible
“Most of the players here in South Africa have grown up on street football also,” she says. “It makes them more mobile and flexible on the pitch. In the Netherlands the football tends to be more structured; the players are less mobile. They can play a longer passing game where we are looking for the second ball [knocked down by a strong centre forward, for example]. Here it’s very different. We look to take advantage of the players’ mobility.”
A small, neat presence, full of restless energy, Pauw was a central defender in her day. This perhaps accounts for the fact that she has recently moved Noko Matlou – a striker – into the heart of defence, given that Portia Modise and Leandra Smeda are proving to be such an irresistible combination as a strike force.
It’s the kind of astute move you sense Banyana need; Pauw has a well-trained eye. Her changes have been minimal but when she makes them they make sense.
Having coached in the Netherlands, Russia and Scotland, Pauw has seen many styles and several approaches to the game. Rather than imposing her beliefs onto what she finds, she tends to approach it the other way round: customising her philosophy to the cultural and physical strengths of what she finds.
“We have developed a style here in South Africa that suits the abilities of the players,” she says, noting that when Banyana play in the African Women’s Championships in Namibia early next month, they will be facing teams such as Cameroon and Ghana in Group B.
It goes without saying that these two West African sides are not, well, the frogs of the African women’s game. Indeed, the Amazons of the West are more likely to be dubbed water buffaloes or even elephants. “Cameroon and Ghana are big and powerful,” she says, “and so are Nigeria in the other group. We have to use our flexibility and play the kind of football that allows for our strengths.”
The African Championships in Namibia act as a qualifier for next year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada. With only eight teams featuring in the African Championships (divided into two groups of four with the top two in each group qualifying for the semifinals), Banyana Banyana have a reasonable chance of doing what no South African women’s side have ever done before.
They’ve been helped by the fact that not only the top two but the third-placed side from Namibia also qualify for Canada, which means that three out of eight will progress to the showpiece – one more side than ever before.
With a talented group of players and a can-do spirit fuelling Bafana Bafana as well as the national junior sides at the moment, the planets seem propitiously aligned for Banyana to do well in Namibia.
With friendlies against fellow qualifiers Côte d’Ivoire (Banyana Banyana won 2-1 on Wednesday night) and Zambia scheduled for the coming days, Banyana depart for Windhoek on October 7. Pauw has been told by the association that if she qualifies for the World Cup she’ll be retained. If not, she’ll be booted.
It’s a tough assignment, but Pauw wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. “To be coaching here is like a dream come true for me,” she says, and you can’t help but believe her.