It’s been a difficult year of results for Banyana Banyana, but Tuesday’s is the first to feel truly gut-wrenching.
As much as the World Cup may have been a harsh reminder of where the team sits in the context of world football, their mere participation was symbolic of a sharp upward trajectory.
It’s hard to find any such consolation this week. Elimination from the 2020 Olympic qualifiers at the hands of Botswana reverses two successive years of participation at the world games. Losing to a sparsely populated country on our border also contravenes the Southern African hegemony that’s been established with three successive Cosafa Cup triumphs.
“It’s really a disaster at the moment,” a dejected Desiree Ellis said after the game. “Not a good day. And we’re all really disappointed … not just for ourselves but everybody that came out. We just have to pick ourselves up.”
Over the past week, the coach has made no attempt to make excuses for Banyana’s failure to find the net over two legs. At the team’s hotel in Milpark on Monday she had bemoaned Botswana’s desire to do little but build two walls in front of her team — a tactic exacerbated by a shoddy pitch that required at least two or three touches to bring the ball under control.
But that was the first game. The lush ground at Orlando Stadium was expected to provide the habitat on which to impose the passing game Ellis loves to play. It delivered … the team did not. Despite chance after chance, they could not convert.
The resultant penalty shootout failure has left the future murky.
“Obviously we’ll sit down first and take a look at the way forward, that’s the most important thing,” Ellis said. “We have to lift the players; at the moment they’re all disappointed. They gave everything that they could out there.”
As disappointing as missing out on a trip to Tokyo is, the loss potentially has more disturbing, long-term consequences.
Olympic qualifying was set to continue for another three rounds — all two-legged affairs. That’s six potential competitive games we’ve missed out on. In these vital stages of growth for the women’s game that is six too many, especially considering we probably won’t see a non-friendly game before early next year at the soonest.
In our current reality it means a lot more than it would on the men’s side. Whereas they would return to ultra-competitive, high-paying club football, many Banyana players have few options outside of the national team.
“I think it’s a bit tough for the team to be inactive for such a long period,” midfielder Leandra Smeda said this week. “As we all know, some players in Banyana don’t have full-time jobs and some of the girls rely on the money they get when they come up for the national team.
“Also, in terms of the development of women’s football, for the national team to go on such a long break it will cost us in our Fifa rankings. A drop in the rankings will also affect the players that want to play abroad, that want to play in better leagues. In terms of exposure: with the team being inactive for so long it will be a blow, especially getting younger talent out there.”
Smeda is one of those who had earned a move overseas — to Vittsjö in Sweden — on the back of impressive outings with South Africa. Without a global stage to showcase their ability, others may struggle to follow suit.
“We need to stay focused, work hard and then hopefully in January we will have games,” she said. “But we will see what happens because at the moment we don’t know what lies ahead for the women’s national team.”
A slice of good news did arrive for aspiring female players towards the end of last month when the Safa Women’s National League finally kicked off. It’s an amateur league, for now, but at least it is a step in the right direction.
Now, more than ever, we want our players to be testing each other on a week-by-week basis. Our worst fear should be losing the substantial progress — and make no mistake, it is substantial — that has been made.
We can only hope Safa has this in mind and is doing all it can to grow the competitive scene.
Ellis, frustrated at her team’s inability to score a goal over 210 minutes, will no doubt be keeping a watchful eye. “Everybody has to play their part,” she said of the necessity to improve the conversion rate.
“The coaches out there have to also help us. Sometimes in the Sasol league it becomes so easy to score, nobody challenges you and you’re not put under pressure. When you come here and get put under pressure, things don’t happen as automatically as they would in the league.
“We just have to continue working on our finishing, that’s all we can do. It’s not just a problem for Banyana … in the PSL you have the leading scorer being at 12 goals so it’s a problem that we really have to start fixing now.”