Banyana raises a nation’s hopes

As much as the inequality gap between the gender lines of our football teams is still wide, there is one key area where the women have surpassed their male contemporaries: expectation.

While Bafana have herded us into a corner that discourages us from even dreaming about consistency, Banyana have spent the past year building up our belief that this is a team that just may be able to achieve something unprecedented in their history. The side is one of the outside favourites to lift the African Cup of Nations, kicking off next week, for the first time. Finishing in the top three would also guarantee qualification to a maiden World Cup.

More eyeballs, more expectation, more pressure.

“Pressure is good. I think a lot of us thrive under pressure,” says goalkeeper Kaylin Swart. “Having a comparison to the men has been a topic of discussion so many times and especially this year because we have achieved so much as a team.”

Swart’s own place in the side mirrors that of its rise in South Africa’s collective consciousness. The 24-year-old has been involved in the national setup as far back as 2009, when she turned out for the under-17s. She would go on to play for the under-20s, participated in senior training as a practice player and even travelled with the squad to the Rio Olympics in 2016. Only in January, however, did she make her actual debut in a friendly against European powerhouse Sweden, a game she describes as one of the greatest moments in her career.

As much as she has been in and around the setup, to the outsider it seems that almost out of the blue she has commanded the number one spot with her performances. Coach Desiree Ellis said she had achieved as much and named her as the preferred choice at the successful Cosafa (Council of Southern Africa Football Associations) Cup in September.

“I have come a long way and I definitely think it’s the start of something new,” Swart says. “We’re all excited about it. I’m young in the team in terms of age and playing but I have been with the girls for years and we have all played together at some point — U-17, U-20 and now Banyana.

“I’m excited about what’s to come and we have worked really hard. It’s been a hard journey, I won’t lie, and there have been ups and downs and I think all my hard work is paying off right now. I just got to keep going, keep my form and whoever gets the nod [to be in goal] will do a good job.”

It’s that Cosafa Cup journey that has intensified the Banyana hype. The achievement of lifting the trophy is one thing — let’s be honest, we wouldn’t give Bafana much credit for doing the same thing — but it’s the manner of the performance that truly matters. Against guest nation Cameroon, in particular, there were enough signs to suggest our hope is not merely misplaced nationalism.

Ranked third on the continent, the West Africans were largely expected to complete their incursion in the tournament with a swift victory in the final. Refiloe Jane, of course, hadn’t read that script; her two spectacular goals that sealed a 2-1 win will burn long in memory. The second, and late winner, was nostalgically reminiscent of Siphiwe Tshabalala’s World Cup opener eight years ago: a fast dash down the left, the ball struck to the far corner, a bench left in mad ecstasy.

Swart put in a determined shift to keep Cameroon out for much of the game. In the 62nd minute, she produced a gorgeous snap save from a close-range header — the type of moment that pumps up defences and injects the type of “we can actually do this” belief necessary to capture the incentive on such occasions.

Such goals and highlights capture the attention of a nation. In today’s world they are shared endlessly on social media as they become regular points of discussion. With each one that emerges the ability of the side to lure in the casual observer increases.

Jane and Janine van Wyk, who collected an award for her 150th cap on Wednesday, have already become instantly recognisable names to most football lovers. Chances are other key players in the squad will be following shortly, especially if they book that elusive World Cup spot.

Swart bursts out laughing when asked whether she’s ready to be a celebrity. “I hate the spotlight. We are all a face for women’s football in the country and we just got to uphold the standard.

“We’re getting the recognition that we deserve because we have worked so hard and tirelessly to change the perception of women’s football and I think we are growing it big time in our country. We’re all excited about the journey we’re on and we just have to keep going and make the country proud.”

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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