The world’s greatest show is upon us once again. World Cup 2018 Russia kicks off this June and fans across the globe have begun the countdown. An estimated 715-million people watched the 2006 and 2010 finals and we can assume that the universal language that is football will once again be spoken.
But in 2018, Bafana Bafana will not be present. This no longer comes as a shock because it’s the second successive tournament from which they have been absent and we have become all too familiar with adopting another African team.
But it does not have to be like this for our sports-crazy nation. If we turn our heads (just slightly) there is an unacknowledged team ready for the adoration of a nation.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) awards in Accra, Ghana, on December 4 last year saw the crowning of Banyana Banyana as the national team of the year in the women’s category. In addition, Banyana Banyana striker Thembi Kgatlana was nominated for women’s player of the year. Yet we have all — and I include myself here — ignored the women’s game, even though they consistently deliver performances worthy of our attention and admiration.
Consider this: the team has qualified and featured in the last two Olympic Games, finished fourth in the 2016 African Cup of Nations and lifted the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations Women’s Championship trophy in Zimbabwe last year.
It may be the case that the national team has never qualified for the World Cup but it came close to participating in the 2011 competition. It narrowly missed out after finishing third in the African Women’s Championship (only the winners and runners-up qualified to participate). And it’s close to qualifying for its maiden appearance in the 2019 World Cup.
A 2012 report by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, titled The Art, Philosophy and Science of Football in South Africa, identified the need for financial backing, facilities and opportunities to play at school level and the formation of formal structures for the women’s game to develop.
Coaches and Local Football Association administrators said: “Access to fields for practices and matches was a challenge as there are more teams than facilities available in communities.”
The report also found that there was considerable negative bias towards the women’s game. According to the report: “Schools often lack finances for equipment and transport, and frequently do not have enough space for grounds, or their grounds are not maintained and become dangerous … in these cases, the boys’ teams seem to get preference.”
The report made recommendations that would improve the game of both the women’s team and the national team. The first was that men and women should be treated equally to address the disparity in financial support and media coverage. A second recommendation was the formation of organised leagues and tournaments to drive skills development and increase interest and participation in the women’s game. A final recommendation was to increase the number of women in leadership, coaching and administrative positions.
Recommendations are one thing, but what basis do they have and what can we conclude from a consideration of three previous winners of the Women’s World Cup?
The 2014 Fifa report, titled Women’s Football Survey, was a detailed analysis of the women’s game globally. It compared both investment and participation across all levels in the different confederations.
The United States are three-time winners in the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (Concacaf). Germany are two-time winners in the Union of European Football Associations (Uefa). Japan had a solitary win in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
Concacaf has a kitty of $20-million a year; Uefa has $99-million and the AFC has $22-million. Compare this with CAF’s $11.6-million a year. The percentage of total annual investment from Fifa member associations sees Uefa with 64%, the AFC with 14%, Concacaf with 13% and CAF shares 9% with the rest of the football bodies.
In terms of women, of about five million registered players, Concacaf has 2 287 185 (the United States and Canada making up 2 255 000), Uefa has 2 095 803 and the AFC has 300 122. In contrast, CAF has a mere 54 055 registered women players.
A comparison of women’s representation on the executive committees of member associations, and in coaching positions, is telling. With a total of 188 women in executive-level positions, the US and Canada make up 19%, the AFC contributes 9%, Uefa 6% and CAF 8%.
The number of women registered as coaches was 83 262 globally. Of this number 30 046 are in the Concacaf (again the US and Canada making up more than 95% of the conference), 33 807 in Uefa, 17 264 in AFC and 1 669 in CAF.
Fifa’s analysis pinpoints that the confederations of previous winners have far larger investment and greater participation by women in terms of both players and coaches. The easy counter-argument to the Women’s Football Survey findings is that these nations possess greater talent. But then what about Brazil?
Brazilian teams, in both the women’s and men’s games, are seen as the bastions of the beautiful game — constantly defying physics in their command of the ball, silky movement and sheer ease with their bodies. But the Brazilian women’s team has never won a World Cup, despite consistently being among the favourites and possessing Marta, who is viewed as the best player of all time.
Brazil form a part of the South American Football Confederation, which has annual investment of $2 462 000, 25 459 registered women players and only 119 registered women coaches. Compare those figures with the ones cited above and it becomes clear that a lack of investment and formal development structures means Brazil cannot turn its immense talent into World Cup success.
In Banyana Banyana’s most recent game against Sweden they went down 3-0, despite home advantage. Addressing the team on January 21 this year, Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter cited the lack of a professional league and a focus on development as factors contributing to their loss.
Baxter said: “It is not a great result, but on the side of performance you gave your all … But remember there are other factors that come into play; they have been doing this from an early age, so their development is far ahead than yours. They play in a professional league, you last played a match in October, but be that as it may, you still gave a good performance.”
Baxter went on to congratulate the coach, Desiree Ellis, and her technical team.
Baxter’s concern points to the need for the establishment of a professional league, and early skills development as preconditions for competitiveness in women’s football.
The one thing that has changed for the better has been the consistent presence of a woman in the position of national team coach. Before interim head coach Ellis — who is the first South African woman to coach the national team — Vera Pauw was in charge from March 2014 until August 2016.
Imagine a situation where the team is provided with financial investment, developmental programmes and professional leagues that match the men’s team. Not only will the women’s game be commanding our attention because of the skill on display but Banyana Banyana will be the recipient of our collective pride and passion for the beautiful game.
Considering the progress made thus far by the women’s game in our country, it is in the realm of possibility for the South African women’s team to become world champions.
Themba Moleketi is a junior researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection