Banyana raises a na­tion’s hopes

Bafana’s poor per­for­mances have re­peat­edly dis­mayed SA but some­thing ex­cit­ing has been hap­pen­ing in their sis­ters’ game

Mail & Guardian - - Sport - Luke Feltham

As much as the in­equal­ity gap be­tween the gen­der lines of our foot­ball teams is still wide, there is one key area where the women have sur­passed their male con­tem­po­raries: ex­pec­ta­tion.

While Bafana have herded us into a cor­ner that dis­cour­ages us from even dream­ing about con­sis­tency, Banyana have spent the past year build­ing up our be­lief that this is a team that just may be able to achieve some­thing un­prece­dented in their his­tory. The side is one of the out­side favourites to lift the African Cup of Na­tions, kick­ing off next week, for the first time. Fin­ish­ing in the top three would also guar­an­tee qual­i­fi­ca­tion to a maiden World Cup.

More eye­balls, more ex­pec­ta­tion, more pres­sure.

“Pres­sure is good. I think a lot of us thrive un­der pres­sure,” says goal­keeper Kaylin Swart. “Hav­ing a com­par­i­son to the men has been a topic of dis­cus­sion so many times and es­pe­cially this year be­cause we have achieved so much as a team.”

Swart’s own place in the side mir­rors that of its rise in South Africa’s col­lec­tive con­scious­ness. The 24-year-old has been in­volved in the na­tional setup as far back as 2009, when she turned out for the un­der­17s. She would go on to play for the un­der-20s, par­tic­i­pated in se­nior train­ing as a prac­tice player and even trav­elled with the squad to the Rio Olympics in 2016. Only in Jan­uary, how­ever, did she make her ac­tual de­but in a friendly against Euro­pean pow­er­house Swe­den, a game she de­scribes as one of the great­est mo­ments in her ca­reer.

As much as she has been in and around the setup, to the out­sider it seems that al­most out of the blue she has com­manded the num­ber one spot with her per­for­mances. Coach De­siree El­lis said she had achieved as much and named her as the pre­ferred choice at the suc­cess­ful Cosafa (Coun­cil of South­ern Africa Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tions) Cup in Septem­ber.

“I have come a long way and I def­i­nitely think it’s the start of some­thing new,” Swart says. “We’re all ex­cited about it. I’m young in the team in terms of age and play­ing but I have been with the girls for years and we have all played to­gether at some point — U-17, U-20 and now Banyana.

“I’m ex­cited about what’s to come and we have worked re­ally hard. It’s been a hard jour­ney, I won’t lie, and there have been ups and downs and I think all my hard work is pay­ing off right now. I just got to keep go­ing, keep my form and who­ever gets the nod [to be in goal] will do a good job.”

It’s that Cosafa Cup jour­ney that has in­ten­si­fied the Banyana hype. The achieve­ment of lift­ing the tro­phy is one thing — let’s be hon­est, we wouldn’t give Bafana much credit for do­ing the same thing — but it’s the man­ner of the per­for­mance that truly mat­ters. Against guest na­tion Cameroon, in par­tic­u­lar, there were enough signs to sug­gest our hope is not merely mis­placed na­tion­al­ism.

Ranked third on the con­ti­nent, the West Africans were largely ex­pected to com­plete their in­cur­sion in the tour­na­ment with a swift vic­tory in the fi­nal. Re­filoe Jane, of course, hadn’t read that script; her two spec­tac­u­lar goals that sealed a 2-1 win will burn long in me­mory. The sec­ond, and late win­ner, was nos­tal­gi­cally rem­i­nis­cent of Siphiwe Tsha­bal­ala’s World Cup opener eight years ago: a fast dash down the left, the ball struck to the far cor­ner, a bench left in mad ec­stasy.

Swart put in a de­ter­mined shift to keep Cameroon out for much of the game. In the 62nd minute, she pro­duced a gor­geous snap save from a close-range header — the type of mo­ment that pumps up de­fences and in­jects the type of “we can ac­tu­ally do this” be­lief nec­es­sary to cap­ture the in­cen­tive on such oc­ca­sions.

Such goals and high­lights cap­ture the at­ten­tion of a na­tion. In to­day’s world they are shared end­lessly on so­cial me­dia as they be­come reg­u­lar points of dis­cus­sion. With each one that emerges the abil­ity of the side to lure in the ca­sual ob­server in­creases.

Jane and Ja­nine van Wyk, who col­lected an award for her 150th cap on Wed­nes­day, have al­ready be­come in­stantly recog­nis­able names to most foot­ball lovers. Chances are other key play­ers in the squad will be fol­low­ing shortly, es­pe­cially if they book that elu­sive World Cup spot.

Swart bursts out laugh­ing when asked whether she’s ready to be a celebrity. “I hate the spot­light. We are all a face for women’s foot­ball in the coun­try and we just got to up­hold the stan­dard.

“We’re get­ting the recog­ni­tion that we de­serve be­cause we have worked so hard and tire­lessly to change the per­cep­tion of women’s foot­ball and I think we are grow­ing it big time in our coun­try. We’re all ex­cited about the jour­ney we’re on and we just have to keep go­ing and make the coun­try proud.”

This is mine: Kaylin Swart of South Africa makes a save from Stina Black­ste­nius of Swe­den dur­ing an in­ter­na­tional friendly match at Cape Town Sta­dium in Jan­uary. Photo: Ash­ley Vlot­man/Gallo Im­ages

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.