Banyana on tough quest for glory

South Africa’s Thembi Kgatlana (foreground) is challenged by Onome Ebi of Nigeria during the decisive African Women’s Cup of Nations match in which Banyana Banyana triumphed over their West African nemesis. (Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix)

South Africa’s Thembi Kgatlana (foreground) is challenged by Onome Ebi of Nigeria during the decisive African Women’s Cup of Nations match in which Banyana Banyana triumphed over their West African nemesis. (Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix)

Better scribes and quasi-philosophers have expounded on the idea of sport being a vehicle for our aspirations, an escape from a sometimes mundane reality when teams or individual players hoist us en masse on to their broad shoulders and take us on flights of fantasy yet unchartered.

If you’re a South African, that ride too often mimics reality and our anointed champions don’t end up triumphant. There have been endless interrogations about why that is, but one that seldom warrants consideration is that, perhaps, just maybe, we’re too fixated on men’s sport.

Enter Banyana, who this week decimated Equatorial Guinea in a one-sided 7-1 drubbing.

But it was the 1-0 win over Nigeria in the opening game of the African Women’s Cup of Nations that really threatened to turn a glimmer of hope into a rainbow.

Nigeria has won the tournament 10 times. To put that in context, there have only been two occasions when they have not won the tournament.

But that victory against the Super Falcons is only part of the bumpy journey Banyana have undertaken in search of their maiden continental triumph.
The game against Zambia on Saturday is critical to ensure the impetus is not lost.

The South African women take on Zambia in their third game of the tournament, a game that will further test Banyana’s competitiveness and their place in the group stages, being the only team to have finished undefeated.

The She-Polopolo, as the Zambian women’s national football team is known, believe the fact that they have qualified for the first time in this tournament is a sign that “this is our time”. They have already put money where their mouths are and hammered two-time champions Equatorial Guinea 5-0 in their first game, a goal margin that will give them the edge as they try to proceed to the next round, should they become level on points with any side in Group B.

But Banyana coach Desiree Ellis, choosing her words carefully ahead of the highly anticipated clash, says Banyana would continue to be the nation’s hope.

“Our president [Danny Jordaan] always says we give hope to the hopeless and we need to continue doing that. Not only just to the people out there, but [also] to the next generation. It’s all about the team and there is no ‘I’, but ‘we’. We have a dream, and we call it ‘One goal, one dream’, and our dream is to qualify for the [France 2019] World Cup.” Ellis, a former Banyana captain, says keeping the players grounded did the trick against Nigeria and would continue to be their trump card for the remainder of the tournament.

“We are keeping everybody grounded and level-headed and that’s the maturity we have in the group. We celebrated the night [of the victory against Nigeria] and the following day we went and prepared for the next games.”

Ellis adds that Zambia’s 5-0 victory against Equatorial Guinea has undoubtedly boosted their confidence, but the match analysis by Ellis’s technical team would be enough to keep the “copper ladies” on the back foot.

“It was a great victory for Zambia, but it’s all about us. It’s all about making sure that we get the job done. We are leaving nothing to chance in this game and we’ll ensure we get the three points.

“We don’t want a scenario where we depend on how other teams do [in order to qualify]. We want to take everything in our own hands,” says Ellis.

Her words about unity and groundedness have been echoed by some of the Banyana players in their personal Twitter accounts.

“Come show your love for Banyana,” said midfielder Nompumelelo Nyandeni.

“Today, we come together again,” wrote captain Janine van Wyk.

“Worship the Lord together and you’ll score together,” said striker Jermaine Seoposenwe, and midfielder Refiloe Jane rounded the conversation off by tweeting: “It’s match day, let’s go Banyana.”

The triumph over Nigeria was Banyana’s first since 2012, where Van Wyk scored the winning goal in the semis of the same competition. The game was also the fifth meeting between the two sides, and Nigeria won three times.

“We looked very good in all areas. That’s what we [as the coaching team] thought as we sat on the bench, but when we saw it again on TV, I think we looked very good,” said Ellis.

“We put them under pressure; we prepared and planned very well. There is always something to play for … we said we wanted a good start and a good start always gives you confidence and momentum. The fact that [Banyana] gave their best was very key for us.”

For Banyana, beating defending champions Nigeria — by far the toughest team in the group — in a comfortable manner was not just “sweet revenge”; it will go a long way towards realising the team’s quest to reach at least the group stages of the tournament.

In the 2016 edition of the tournament, Banyana played to a 0-0 stalemate against Zimbabwe, which clearly affected their confidence because they played most of their next games on the back foot.

They went on to lose 1-0 to Nigeria in the semis, and suffered another 1-0 to Ghana in the fight for third position.


Players whose stars are on the rise

On Saturday, Banyana will be pinning their hopes on the in-form, pacey forward Thembi Kgatlana, whose long-range 84th-minute volley gave Nigeria’s ever reliable goalkeeper, Tokuchwu Oluehi, no chance in the 1-0 upset.

Kgatlana, who was voted Woman of the Match, is expected to keep that form, with the backing of fellow striker Busisiwe Ndimeni, whom she replaced in the 57th minute. Banyana coach Desiree Ellis is known for using either both forwards or using one as cover. For Saturday’s game, the manager hasn’t indicated whether she will start with Kgatlana, whose goal against Nigeria was her 11th in Banyana colours.

Banyana does not look vulnerable in defence and Ellis has trumpeted her back four as “resolute”. Among the four is the hard-marking Lebohang Ramalepe, who received her milestone 50th cap in the victory against Nigeria.

Zambia, on the other hand, will be banking on their red-hot striker, Rachel Kandananji, who introduced herself in Ghana in dramatic fashion, hitting a brace in their 5-0 victory. Her speed, technical acumen and nose for goals have left tongues wagging and are expected to force Banyana’s back four to work overtime.

Kandananji has said that the two goals against Equatorial Guinea were largely because her team had never featured in a tournament of this pedigree before.

Having been voted Woman of the Match, the Indeni Roses striker said the current Zambian team “was different from the one that lost many games in the past”.

But Kandananji is not the only lethal weapon Zambia have in their pocket. They also have Barbra Banda, a scoring machine and the first-ever Zambian woman player to join a European team; she recently moved to Spanish side EDF Legrono.

The 18-year-old Banda doubles as a professional boxer and has won all five of her fights, including four by knockout. She is expected to form a deadly combination with Kandananji. She scored on debut for her Spanish Superliga club in a win against SC Huelva earlier this month.

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