Banyana’s bittersweet success

Savouring the moment: Banyana Banyana celebrate their victory against Mali during the 2018 African Women’s Cup of Nations semifinal in Ghana. (Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix)

Savouring the moment: Banyana Banyana celebrate their victory against Mali during the 2018 African Women’s Cup of Nations semifinal in Ghana. (Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix)

There is more to celebrate in Banyana Banyana’s exploits in the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations 2018 (Awcon) than just a team enjoying a good run in a tournament.

Banyana beat Mali 2-0 in the semifinals of the Ghana-hosted tournament on Tuesday, a victory that not only set them up for a date with Nigeria in the finals this weekend, but also guaranteed a spot in the Fifa Women’s World Cup in France next year.

Banyana may not be the first South African national team to reach a final of a tournament, or to qualify for a World Cup, but the challenges they have had to endure en route to their Awcon triumph could have easily turned their gameplay mediocre, rather than the glimmer of hope they have instead brought to the nation.

Not long ago, there were fears that the players could abandon certain matches if their money dispute was not settled, in what could have been a serious blow to the glory they now celebrate.

The team says the South African Football Association (Safa) made empty promises of win bonuses after Banyana won the Council of Southern Africa Football Associations (Cosafa) Cup and again after their 6-0 hammering of Lesotho in July, a win that qualified them for Awcon.

“The girls were so upset that we decided to take our kits home until they pay us,” one player said in a radio interview. “Remember after every camp we are expected to hand the kit back, even the goalkeeping gloves. They take everything back, from our boots and they even used to take our tights back, but now they allow us to keep the tights.”

The player, speaking anonymously, said Safa even threatened to deduct the money if they failed to return the kit.

READ MORE: Banyana into AFCON final, qualify for World Cup

Despite being by far the most progressive and consistent national football team in South Africa in recent times, Banyana also claimed not to have been paid match fees when they play, whether nationally or abroad, whereas their male counterparts Bafana Bafana receive up to R60 000 each per game.

Their sponsor, Sasol, gave Banyana R500 000 after winning the Cosafa Cup last year, but Safa failed to live up to their promise of a further incentive.
This and other problems have led to deepening animosity between Banyana and Safa.

This was visible when not a single Banyana player made an appearance at a Safa press conference to celebrate the team’s qualification for Awcon.

Despite all that, Banyana, coached by former captain Desiree Ellis, put their country before their own interests and soldiered on to what turned out to be a historic moment.

Ellis attributed the team’s success to being grounded and the high level of team spirit in the camp.

“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,” she said

Safa acting chief executive Russell Paul congratulated Banyana and their coaching staff for their efforts.

“On behalf of the president, Safa council and membership at large, we want to congratulate the team. All your hard work, commitment and patience over the past year has finally paid off.”

He also urged the team to remain focused on their next objective — the final against Nigeria and next year’s World Cup.

Banyana’s passage through to the final was not by fluke. They had to face some of the toughest teams in the tournament, with the most critical including that dramatic 1-0 victory against Nigeria in the opening game and the 2-0 win against Zambia.

And if Bafana Bafana’s 1996 Africa Cup of Nations glory is a good omen, victory for Banyana in the final against Nigeria might as well be regarded as a done deal.

Bafana faced Tunisia and beat them 2-0 in the opening game of the tournament 22 years ago, only to cross paths with them again in the final and beating them by the same margin.

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