The South African senior national women’s team made history by qualifying for the Fifa World Cup for the first time, as Desiree Ellis and Leandra Smeda reflect on their impressive journey while previewing the task ahead.
AfterAfter 25 years of hard work, Banyana Banyana have finally qualified for their first Fifa World Cup, securing their passage to the global spectacle in France after their runners-up finish at the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations. Tracking their impressive progress in recent months which culminated in their historical feat, KICK OFF’s Zola Doda speaks to the team’s protagonists while also looking at Banyana’s chances on the world stage.
Siyaya e France became the South African football theme song after Bafana Bafana qualified for their first Fifa World Cup in France 1998. And twenty years later, the women’s national team led by coach Desiree Ellis is singing the same tune as Banyana Banyana qualified for their first World Cup, which, as fate would have it, is also being hosted in France.
Banyana achieved the feat after finishing as runners-up to champions Nigeria at the recent 2018 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations held in Ghana. Ironically, Ellis was the captain of the South African team that played their first-ever official match against Swaziland in May 1993, and fell well short of qualifying for the 1995 World Cup held in Sweden after being thrashed 11-2 on aggregate by Nigeria. Banyana lost that first leg 4-1 in Ibadan which was followed by a 7-1 drubbing in the return leg at home. Nigeria qualified for the World Cup as CAF’s sole representatives, as South Africa failed to qualify for the next five World Cup tournaments in succession. Yet when Banyana were drawn in the same group as Nigeria in the 2018 Nations Cup, where the competition’s top three teams secured a World Cup berth, Ellis knew there could be no messing around this time. “We knew this was the big one for us,” she says. “Already at the beginning of the year we started preparing because of the magnitude of the tournament. This was not just the Afcon, it was also the qualifiers for the World Cup. There was no messing around – we had to prepare well. When the president [Danny Jordaan] came back from the 2018 World Cup in Russia, he told us that our physical conditioning for this tournament will have to be top-notch, because physically it would be difficult to compete with Nigeria and Cameroon.” Banyana’s preparations for the continental tournament continued in perfect fashion as they overcame Cameroon in September’s Cosafa Women’s Championship final as they targeted an improved performance from their fourth-place finish at the 2016 Afcon. “Cosafa came and that gave us a good test,” Ellies continues. “In 2016 when we played at the Afcon, in the first half we were good, but in the second half we stopped playing. This tournament showed that we are there because we have improved a lot since 2016.” Before the Nations Cup kicked off, Banyana travelled to South America to play friendly matches against higher-level opposition in Chile, which Ellis says formed a crucial