The history of South African women’s football is littered with glorious failure and missed opportunities and it is no surprise they face yet another crossroads this weekend.
Banyana Banyana meet Côte d’Ivoire in the third-place play-off match at the African Women’s Championship in Namibia. That carries much more value than just the prospect of a bronze medal – the winner of the play-off will join Cameroon and Nigeria as one of three African representatives at the Women’s World Cup in Canada next year.
It is not the first time Banyana Banyana stand just one game away from reaching a goal that has consistently eluded them in the past. Years of opportunity to make dramatic strides in the development of the women’s game on the back of World Cup fever has been missed by previous teams, but the latest generation of women internationals can change that.
Make no mistake, the women’s game in South Africa has come along with polished efficiency in recent years – and Banyana are markedly improved – but the pool of players might have been much bigger on the back of inevitably larger participation that World Cup fever would have caused.
Increase in investment
That is why victory in Windhoek on Saturday is crucial for the South Africans, who have benefited from a huge increase in investment in their team from the South African Football Association.
That includes the recruitment of Vera Pauw, a top Dutch coach with experience both on the field and on the touchline, and much more funding for preparatory camps and warm-up friendly matches.
Pauw was also given the unambiguous assignment of taking South Africa to Canada 2015 – a task made marginally easier by the fact the tournament has increased from 16 teams to 24 and, as a result, Africa has been given an added place.
Nigeria have consistently been the front runner in the African women’s football arena, although challenged in recent years by tiny Equatorial Guinea, who packed their side with Brazilian mercenaries and were, surprisingly, allowed to get away with it. Those two countries played at the last Women’s World Cup in Germany in 2011.
But Equatorial Guinea mysterious bombed out at the first hurdle of the 2015 qualifiers to the Ivorians, while the narrowing of the gap between South Africa and Nigeria was evidenced by Wednesday’s semifinal in Windhoek, which Banyana lost by only 2-1.
It was not long ago they would have been beaten by six goals by the Nigerian women. Previous form against the Ivorians suggest Banyana are marginal favourites. But any optimism is tempered by the bitter memory of past letdowns.