Football’s swings and roundabouts
This might not be the worst assessment in the sports audit but it was by far the most painful to dish out. Twelve months ago we were celebrating what promised to be a renaissance of women’s football in the country. Banyana Banyana had just made it to the Africa Cup of Nations, losing narrowly to powerhouse Nigeria, and in doing so had qualified for their maiden World Cup. In a year of marginal sporting achievement and political upheaval, the determination of Desiree Ellis’s players imbued the nation with much-needed hope and belief.
Waiting around the corner was an ugly reminder that those cherished intangibles alone would not be enough at an elite level.
With the exception of three draws, Banyana lost all of their games at the Cyprus Cup and in the build-up to the World Cup. Most came against developed European countries — one of the many indications that wealth and sociopolitical factors are still major factors when it comes to competitiveness in women’s football.
The showpiece itself didn’t go much better. Despite running both Spain and China close, South Africa couldn’t get a point on the board and duly crashed out of the World Cup. A disappointing end to a journey that had begun with such great expectations.
Fortunately, the Cosafa Cup offered an opportunity to regroup and Banyana happily took it. The side defended their title without much trouble or fanfare, setting a record 17-0 scoreline against Comoros along the way. Once more, the gulf between the opposition we might face in the region compared to the global stage became frustratingly apparent.
Yet just as we consoled ourselves with Southern African dominance, neighbours Botswana intervened and knocked us out of contention for the 2020 Olympics. After everything that had been accomplished, this felt like one of the hardest gut punches.
Reflecting on the year it’s hard not to think the team has taken two steps back. Disappointing for everyone.
Bafana Bafana just keep sneaking by. First, to get out of the Africa Cup of Nations group stages and again, here, to get an okayish grade in our audit. It’s hard to point to vast improvement, but it’s also undeniable that this team made us feel again.
That’s likely down to key, emotive points during the year, beginning, of course, with a fiery Percy Tau double to earn qualification for Afcon against Libya in Sfax, Tunisia. Euphoric moments have that sort of power — images of Stuart Baxter revelling with his players in the dressing room quickly erased memories of the laboured route they had taken to get to that cliff edge in the first place.
Then there was that match. Again, the middling Afcon group stages — in which qualification was achieved by virtue of being the fourth-best third-place finishers — became a distant memory after Thembinkosi Lorch neatly finished off a piercing counter-attack to send South Africa into the quarterfinals.
That last-16 tie against hosts Egypt produced a performance even stubborn Bafana believers didn’t think this team was capable of anymore. Gritty, fierce in the tackle, smooth on the front foot: this is the kind of football we had been yearning for.
Africa took notice. Overnight, South Africa had rejoined the conversation — just how far could the brazen Pharaoh-slayers go?
Unfortunately, thanks to old foes Nigeria, it would be no further. Still, Bafana were able to leave Cairo with their heads held high.
If we can ascribe one purpose to our national sports teams it would be to inspire belief. For one sweltering night at the Cairo International Stadium, we believed.
Ultimately, it was not enough for Baxter to keep his job and he passed on the reins to Molefi Ntseki. It’s far too early to get a sense of where the new coach’s tenure will take us but, with the memories of Afcon still fresh and an exciting young core coming through, expectation is tentatively sprouting.