Banyana Banyana returned to South Africa on Wednesday morning with more than a hint of disappointment in their carry-ons.
Losing 3-0 to world champions United States was not surprising. The manner the goals fell was not overly disconcerting either. But it is one more notch in an accumulation of failures.
Like Chinese water torture, each defeat is starting to pound on the psyche just that bit harder.
Banyana haven’t won for … well … a while. It’s been almost six months since they brought nothing but pride off the plane with them at OR Tambo. Victory has eluded them ever since. A spirited second-place finish at the African Women’s Cup of Nations was supposed to herald a new era. It may still, but right now the frustration is simmering.
It’s obvious that coach Desiree Ellis has been furiously trying to stop it from boiling over.
“We haven’t won a game, but I saw improved performances all the way,” she said as she began her post-mortem of the US defeat. “Through Cyprus we got to learn a little more about the squad. A goal here, a decision there, things could have been different.
“Playing the US, we spoke about minimising mistakes and taking the chances that we create. The first box we definitely ticked. Prior to that we’d concede in the first 15 to 20 minutes, or even earlier, and be on the backfoot from the word go. But this time around we saw players putting their bodies on the line. That’s the effort that you want.”
The themes throughout this barren run, as Ellis points out, have been the same. Too often soft at the back, jittery in the front.
The latter has revealed itself continually. Jamaica, for instance, was a team in the same bracket as Banyana — there was no reason that shouldn’t have been a win. A 1-1 draw was a reflection of a troubling proclivity for wasted chances.
“Look, it always helps to win a game, so you have a bit of confidence,” Ellis continued. “It’s all about taking your chances, though. That has been a concern for us. We create opportunities but don’t take them.
“In a way you make your own luck. But this way or that way, these results could have been different. All along we saw increased performance and that at least is really good.”
The results may have been negative but what does it mean in the scheme of things? Where to next for Banyana?
Ellis takes solace in the fact that most of the teams faced this year have been rather good. The problem is that it gets no easier at the World Cup in a group that contains Germany, Spain and China, all teams with a top 20 ranking.
Banyana have precious little time to prepare and up their game.
After less than two weeks of training at home, the squad will board the plane to France. There they have one more game before the showpiece kicks off — a match against Norway announced earlier this month.
With the game against Spain coming five days later, all of a sudden that routine warm-up takes on huge importance.
“We have to get a result,” Ellis said matter-of-factly. “We have to even improve on this performance; make sure that we can have this first half of the game against the US replicated across 90 minutes. If we don’t concede then we always have a chance.
“We will look for a win because it gives you confidence. On another level they will also test us and get us ready for our opening game at the World Cup.”