/ 12 June 2023

African football needs more than faith to thrive

Captain Janine van Wyk limped off the field early in the second stanza and was replaced by Noko Matlou in a forced change.
Former Banyana captain Janine van Wyk in the number five jersey. File photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Women’s football is growing fast, with record stadium attendances, television viewership figures and transfer fees over the last 18 months, but not everybody is benefiting from the boom equally.

The major milestones have been achieved in Europe, but Africa risks being left behind unless strides in investment and development are made quickly.

“There’s a big gap between African football and the rest of the world — we still have a long way to go,” said Janine van Wyk, the former South African captain who has just completed a stint with Ergotelis FC in Greece.

“But with limited resources and without a competitive league, South Africa were still able to reach World Cups in 2019 and 2023, and the Olympic Games in 2012 and 2016. If you look at other teams that qualify — Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana — they also have limited resources. They don’t have established leagues. Africa as a whole needs to develop much more.”

As expectation builds ahead of July’s Women’s World Cup, Van Wyk cautioned against predicting any big returns for the four African participants.

“It will take a lot for South Africa or any other African country to win such a competition because of lack of resources and development. People expect miracles when they hear South Africa are going to the World Cup and they think we could win, but it’s not going to happen in the near future.”

South Africa are the current Africa champions and are making their second successive World Cup appearance, but have yet to win a game at the event. Nigeria have been part of every World Cup since the tournament’s inception in 1991 and reached the quarterfinals in 1999, while Zambia and Morocco are making their debuts.

Van Wyk identified Morocco as the real leaders on the continent, given the pace of their development programme over the past three years.

In August 2020, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation unveiled a four-year plan for women’s football. It included setting up a two-division professional domestic tournament and providing $30 million in funding. The plan has already paid off. After failing to reach the last 10 editions of the Africa Cup of Nations, Morocco qualified as hosts for 2022 and reached the final.

“Morocco is flying at the moment; they are so well invested in their teams, from development up until their first teams,” Van Wyk said. “At Afcon, we trained at their national facility; it was top-notch. And they are investing in developing players from a young age and getting the structures right.”

It’s this template Van Wyk would like to see other African countries follow, rather than the ad hoc model of girls getting into the game by forcing their way into boys’ teams — a route she herself took.

“Playing with boys increases your performance, but there are no structures there — no coaches or educators in place to make sure these girls actually learn about the game,” she said. “It’s one thing for girls to just be put on a football field but are they actually learning the game? That is where Morocco has got it right, and where we still are lacking.”

To address that, Van Wyk has set up her own club — JVW FC — who play in South Africa’s top flight. She has also earned a Uefa B coaching licence, with a view to contributing to the professionalism of the women’s game.

But before that, she has one more goal to score: Van Wyk is two international caps away from becoming Africa’s most capped footballer — male or female — and would have achieved them at the 2023 World Cup had it not been for a knee injury that forced her to withdraw from the squad. She’s not done yet though.

“I’ve achieved everything I wanted to achieve, except those two caps. I’m going to get it, whether it’s before or after the World Cup.” 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.