Next weekend the Women’s World Cup kicks off in Canada and yet again South Africa will not be there. The women’s national team, Banyana Banyana, have an unenviable litany of hard-luck stories to tell, having previously missed out on several qualifications in some of the most heartbreaking and bizarre circumstances.
There were high hopes that this would change for the 2015 tournament as the Women’s World Cup has been expanded from 16 to 24 teams with Africa given an extra, third place.
South Africa were right on course at the qualifiers in Windhoek last October, needing to win against the unfancied Côte d’Ivoire in their last game to go through. It was a dominant performance in which the Mzansi women did everything but score and then gave up a late goal that sent the Ivorians to Canada instead.
It was all overshadowed by allegations about the gender of the Ivorian captain and the failure of the West Africans to produce the required medical proof.
All sides must test their players and sign a guarantee their squad is exclusively female. If there are any allegations, proof of the requisite tests must be supplied but the Ivorians kept on promising the documentation without delivering. In the end the Confederation of African Football quashed any investigation to avoid its showpiece women’s tournament being overshadowed by the potential controversy of one of its star performers turning out to be a man.
“Every day the pain is getting bigger,” says Banyana’s Dutch coach, Vera Pauw. “We really should have been there, we deserved to be there. We had it in our own hands. The pain will not go away for the rest of my life.”
Ahead of the last World Cup in Germany in 2011, South Africa hosted the 2010 African Women’s Championship and were odds-on favourites to reach the final, thereby securing their passage. The top two finishers in the tournament would go through and, with Nigeria runaway favourites, Banyana were hopeful of at least second place.
Yet they lost one match from their target to one of the continent’s smallest countries – Equatorial Guinea, which emerged from hermetic isolation to field a more than competitive team.
The fact they were all Brazilians and Nigerians, naturalised just to play football and paid handsomely like mercenaries of old, did not seem to evoke much outrage. It is contrary to the eligibility rules of Fifa for players to be given an instant passport to play for another country – they must either have some blood ties or have served a five-year residency qualification.
The Brazilian imports spoke openly, in television interviews during the tournament, about the inducements and incentives to travel to one of the world’s weirdest countries to play international football and their obvious excitement at going to a World Cup, albeit not in the canary colours of their motherland. But the South African Football Association did not to pursue the matter and made no effort to protest or seek recourse at Fifa.
So Equatorial Guinea went to the World Cup instead where, curiously, Fifa made little effort to weed out their mercenaries.
The 2011 tournament in Germany was a huge success. Basking in glorious summer sunshine, crowds were massive and television audiences huge. The football was vastly improved too.
In Canada much the same is expected, although the build-up has been overshadowed by controversy over the past year as Fifa and organisers insisted on playing on artificial turf – saving themselves money by not having to re-lay many of the gridiron stadiums with grass – to the chagrin of the players and the women’s football community.
Admiration for Blatter
But any bitterness they might have is still secondary to the overwhelming admiration for Fifa’s controversial president Sepp Blatter. Although he has been assailed on all fronts, heading into this weekend’s Fifa congress and his controversial re-election, he will get a hero’s welcome when he gets to Canada.
“Without Fifa the game would not have grown like it has. There has been a lot of criticism for Fifa recently but I can say, as far as women’s football matters, without Fifa, and especially without Blatter, we would not be where we are now,” says Pauw. “The growth of the women’s game has been incomparable.”
But watching from the sidelines will be hard this week for South Africa’s women, who play at Dobsonville Stadium this Saturday against Gabon in the qualifiers for their next major event, the Rio Olympics. They are 3-2 ahead from last weekend’s first leg.
“My players are all sensational and, had they had a chance at the World Cup, almost all of them would be snapped up by overseas clubs. That’s the really hard part about missing out on Canada, the fact that lives could have been changed had we got there,” adds the coach.