This month the South African women’s national team is in Ghana for the 2018 Africa Women Cup of Nations. Given recent form, there’s every chance success here will mean a place at next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup
South Africa will hope to put two decades of heartache behind them when they contest the 2018 Africa Women Cup of Nations scheduled for Ghana from November 17, not only seeking to become continental champions for the first time, but also secure a maiden berth at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Banyana Banyana have endured frustration and disappointment on both fronts in the past, but with a number of players now plying their trade overseas, there is the real belief that this year’s squad could achieve both goals. This belief was backed up by the team’s recent success, winning the 2018 COSAFA Women’s Championship crown by beating Cameroon 2-1 in a thrilling final .
The eight-team Nations Cup serves as a qualifier for the global finals, which will be played in France in June and July next year, with the top three sides from Ghana moving on to represent Africa at the showpiece event.Fourth may even be good enough if Equatorial Guinea, who are serving a FIFA ban from qualifying for the World Cup after being found guilty of fielding ineligible players, are among the leading three nations in Ghana.
“That is our ultimate goal, to reach the World Cup,” Banyana coach Desiree Ellis told SAWUBONA. “We have come so close to qualification in the past and to have fallen just short has been heart-breaking. We know what qualifying for France will mean for these girls, it will give them exposure to the watching world and the chance to prove that women’s football in South Africa is on the rise.”
THE BIG IMPROVEMENT
That would certainly seem to be the case, with a number of national team stars now playing abroad, going from a zero base as recently as two years ago.The trio of stalwart captain Janine van Wyk, pacey forward Thembi Kgatlana and silky midfielder Linda Motlhalo all played for Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States in 2018, regarded as the best women’s club competition in the world.
Forward Ode Fulutudilu is in Finland with ONS and midfielder Leandra Smeda recently signed with Gintra Universitetas in Lithuania, a team that features in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. Added to that, midfielder Refiloe Jane and striker Rhoda Mulaudzi have just signed for Australian side Canberra United.
“I think this will be a big difference for us this year, to have these players overseas and able to bring back that knowledge to share with the group,” Ellis said. “If you look at Nigeria and Cameroon, who have done so well in recent years, probably 90 percent of their players are with clubs outside of those countries.
“But we have quality throughout our squad and our task in the build-up to the Nations Cup is to work out what our best selection is. That is not going to be easy, but as a coach I am delighted that I am going to have to make some hard decisions. It is much better than automatically knowing what the squad will look like.”
Van Wyk, who made her 150th international appearance in September and is the most capped African women’s footballer of all time, has been part of the past disappointments, but she too is upbeat about the team’s chances in 2018.
“To have come so close in 2014 when we just needed to beat Ivory Coast in the bronze-medal match and completely dominated that game, I mean we should have been leading 5-0 at halftime, was one of the hardest things I have been through in football,” she said of the 1-0 loss to the Ivorians that ended their 2015 World Cup hopes.
“We had worked so hard to reach the World Cup and for it to end like that. It still stays with me and I think with a lot of the players in this group too.But when I look through the squad now, there is so much quality here. I really feel like we have a great chance and for me it would just be the most amazing way for me to cap my national team career.”
Whatever the quality of the squad and the preparations, Banyana still form part of a tough field and will have to do better than their FIFA Women’s World Ranking of fourth on the African continent if they are to reach France.But they can also make history of a different kind by lifting the Nations Cup trophy, something they have also failed to do previously despite finishing runners-up on four occasions.
AND THEIR BIG OPPONENTS
There have only ever been two winners of the previous 12 editions of the continental finals, with powerhouse Nigeria claiming 10 of those and unlikely victors Equatorial Guinea the other two.The latter have been fast and loose with handing out passports to mainly Brazilian players in order to bolster their squad and eventually fell foul of FIFA after being found guilty of fielding 10 ineligible players in the qualifiers for the 2016 Olympic Games. The country was initially also banned from the 2018 and 2020 Nations Cup tournaments by the Confederation of African Football, but this suspension was inexplicably lifted last year.
Hosts Ghana will be a real threat, as will Cameroon, who qualified for the previous World Cup in Canada in 2015 and made it out of the group stages.Algeria, Mali and Zambia make up the rest of the field, with the eight teams split into two groups of four each. The pools are decided on a round-robin basis, with the top two teams advancing to the semifinals. The final will be played on December 1.
Perennial favourites Nigeria will be the team to beat again and it is tough to look past them as champions again, especially as they have won the last two tournaments played, beating Cameroon on both occasions in the final.
“There is such a great spirit in this group, a real hunger to be ambassadors for our country. I have no doubt we will give it our all in Ghana and I am really positive about our chances,” Van Wyk said.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
ELIZABETH ADDO Ghana
Forward Addo plays for top National Women’s Soccer League side Seattle Reign and won rave reviews in the 2018 season. Her vast experience has also taken her to clubs in Nigeria, Serbia, Hungary and Sweden, and she will likely be a chief source of goals for the side.
GENOVEVA AÑONMA Equatorial Guinea
Striker Añonma made her senior international debut as a 14-year-old in 2002 and has been a stalwart presence ever since. Born in the remote town of Coco, through all the trials and tribulations of the national team in recent years, she has been a consistent performer. This is likely to be her swansong on the international stage.
LINDA MOTLHALO South Africa
Described as future superstar of the global game by respected ex-Banyana Banyana coach Vera Pauw, Motlhalo has great technical ability and at the tender age of 20, a maturity and football intelligence beyond her years. She plays for Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League where she was a regular in 2018.
MADELEINE NGONO MANI Cameroon
Another who has enjoyed a long international career, Ngono Mani also made her senior debut in 2002 and has been a regular source of goals for the national team since. She has spent the majority of her club career in the French league, most notably with Saint-Étienne.
ASISAT OSHOALA Nigeria
Oshoala has been a key part of Nigeria’s success in recent years and at the age of 23 is likely to only get better from here. The forward has already played for Arsenal and Liverpool Ladies in England, and is currently in China with Dalian Quanjian. She is the reigning African Women’s Footballer of the Year.
PAST WINNERS OF THE AFRICA WOMEN CUP OF NATIONS
1991 – Nigeria
1995 – Nigeria
1998 – Nigeria
2000 – Nigeria
2002 – Nigeria
2004 – Nigeria
2006 – Nigeria
2008 – Equatorial Guinea
2010 – Nigeria
2012 – Equatorial Guinea
2014 – Nigeria
2016 – Nigeria
WORDS Nick Said