What should we expect from Banyana at the first World Cup?

The problem with South Africa is that it has never been able to execute its Phil Masinga moment at the World Cup itself.

His devious strike that somehow dipped at a high velocity and secured a spot in France 1998 has an indelible place in history thanks to its significance. There hasn’t been a moment that mattered as much since then.

Siphiwe Tshabalala’s 2010 cracker was remarkable for what it promised to represent but ultimately mattered for nought in the context of group stages.

Escaping past that so-far impenetrable wall of first-round qualification is top of mind going into this weekend’s World Cup. Twenty-one years after Bafana’s trip to France, Banyana have their first audition on the same global stage.

Can they be the first senior side to scale the group-stage hurdle?

The logical answer is no. On recent evidence, Group B opponents Spain, China and Germany all appear significantly ahead in terms of their own development. The odds seem to have been stacked against Banyana even before kick-off.

Resigning oneself to that reality, however, will be of use to no one. “I think that if we keep making excuses for everyone we will never really push ourselves to see how good we are,” former Banyana captain Amanda Dlamini stresses. “I’m hoping that we can get a win against the likes of Spain and maybe a draw against China.”

She added: “The disadvantage with the South African national teams is that we’ve never really won anything. Regardless of the expectations, Banyana need to prove themselves. I think what’s important is that everyone represents the country well.”

Dlamini, who retired last year, was an integral part of the key development years leading up to qualification. Coach Desiree Ellis may have taken the team to the next level in 2018 but it was the unglamorous years prior to her reign, when most players were complete unknowns to the broader public, that laid the foundation for that success.

Still, should Banyana exceed what’s expected of them, Ellis and her crop will likely go down as national legends.

“She’s a legend as it is and rightfully so. She won the coach of the year on the African continent and I think that is a major achievement on top of what she’s achieved as a footballer.

“If she can have the courage and of course the belief of the players to go through she will have achieved an immense level,” said Dlamini.

One of the biggest dangers heading into the weekend is that the confidence earned from that long but consistent journey has been eroded by recent sobering results.

Banyana haven’t won since the Africa Cup of Nations semi-final in November 2018 and have collected a few eyesores along the way. Last weekend, the side found themselves demolished 7-2 by Norway. That’s exactly the type of confidence-shattering result Ellis would have dreaded so close to the first game day, and that only increases public scrutiny.

Are we wrong to ask, and expect, this outfit to go deep? Should we just chalk up any failure to their inexperience at this level? Or is it right to demand that any team in national colours fight for the most supreme of glories?

“I think what will be fair is to expect the best from them,” former Bafana goalkeeper Andre Arendse argues. “They have to give their best — whatever that best is. As much as it may be unfair of us to expect them to go and win the World Cup, we have to demand the best from them. I believe that that best will see them compete against the other teams, not only in the group but if they progress beyond the group stages it will give them a sense of achievement.”

Arendse was part of that 1998 side that faced daunting, unknown territory with an expectant nation at its back. After losing 3-0 to France in the opener back then, the two draws that followed were not good enough to save South Africa from elimination.

“I can gather that they’re going through the same sort of feelings that we did. There’ll be lots of excitement,” Arendse reflected. “This is the world stage, it doesn’t get any bigger than this. That’s where the excitement comes in.

“As we get closer to the opening game there will also be the realisation of it and that will stir the nerves. There’s no question about that. They’ll realise that millions of people will be watching.

“The nerves will definitely kick in then. But they’ll also be filled with confidence because they’ll know that a lot of people will be supporting them. They’ll thrive on that.”

The truth is no one in South Africa knows what to expect. We’ve been through World Cups but the women’s game is a different beast, with dynamics we’ve never encountered before.

As devastating as recent results have been, there’s an argument that it has a positive bloodletting spin. In the absence of expectations it’s easy to surpass them.

Should Banyana go as deep as the quarterfinals, they’ll go down as heroes. Fail, but with a healthy amount of fight, and they could achieve the same tag.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

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

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