Picture: Supplied/SAFA – Banyana Banyana celebrate at the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium in Rabat they beat Morocco on Saturday to be crowned WAFCON champions.
By Herman Gibbs
Ever the bridesmaids, South Africa’s national women’s team Banyana Banyana were finally crowned queens of African women’s football on Saturday night.
Today they return back on home soil and it is expected to be a momentous occasion as crowds gather at OR Tambo International Airport.
Even the President has arranged to celebrate the team at the Union Buildings in the country’s capital city – Pretoria tomorrow afternoon.
To recap, South Africa’s win on Saturday means they have joined 11-time champions Nigeria and two-time champions Equatorial Guinea as the only countries ever to win the tournament since its inception in 1991.
Banyana Banyana annexed the WAFCON title on the back of a dazzling display that had the hallmark of aesthetic football at its entertaining best. The opposition was armed with a game plan devised by their French coach Reynald Pedros. He proved his worth as a master tactician after guiding Lyonnais Féminin to two UEFA Women’s Champions League titles.
Fuelled by the incessant cheering of 53,000 partisan supporters at the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium in Rabat, Morocco’s Atlas Lionesses ran hard at the South Africans at every opportunity.
Man-for-man, the South Africans looked like the more accomplished players, but the Moroccans were at the top of their game. They had bucket loads of resilience and guts, but it merely served to bring the best out of the South Africans.
No wonder, Pedros, an authority on women’s football, conceded afterwards that Banyana Banyana was the most technical side at the 2022 showpiece. He had a plan to impose his side’s gameplan on South Africa and he said his squad had been working on that blueprint for over a year.
Pedros was full of praise for the standard of football served up in the final saying it was a testament to the growth of the women’s game in Africa.
Many of the congratulatory messages that poured in made mention of Fran Hilton-Smith and the Dutch-born coach Vera Pauw, the pioneers of Banyana Banyana. The two ladies fought hard for the women’s game in the country and by the time they handed over the baton to Desiree Ellis, all the building blocks were in place.
Ellis, a former Banyana player, played in one WAFCON final which South Africa lost. She had the same experience as the national team coach in the previous final when Nigeria edged South Africa on penalties.
And when Ellis lifted the trophy on Saturday night, she paid homage to the coaches that helped make SA women’s football a force to be reckoned with. Ellis has had her fair share of detractors, but her legend will be indelibly engraved in the annals of African football folklore after being crowned Coach of the Year (women) for the third successive year.
Ellis was one of the celebrated stars of African football, who were last week honoured at the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Awards gala at the impressive Mohamed VI Technical Centre in Rabat, Morocco.
After taking over the reins from Pauw, the Dutch football coach, Ellis was appointed in an interim capacity in 2016. Two years later she was appointed head coach of the South African national women’s team.
She has never looked back, and South African women’s football has scaled new heights and has become a force on the African continent. Banyana reached the WAFCON final for the first time in several years but were denied by Nigeria in the 2018 final after the Super Falcons won the penalty shoot-out.
Previously, Banyana reached the finals in 1995, 2000 (Ellis played in the first two finals) and 2008.
After guiding the national team to the 2018 final, Ellis won the Africa Coach of the Year (women) for the first time. She made back-to-back wins when she lifted the title again in 2019 after she guided Banyana to a first-ever FIFA World Cup berth.
Recently, Ellis again qualified Banyana for the World Cup after reaching the 2022 WAFCON semi-finals in Morocco. By this time, Banyana had racked up the tag of favourites after defeating perennial champions Nigeria in the opening group encounter.
The win marked Banyana’s second successive win over Nigeria’s Super Falcons in a year. Last September, the Ellis-led side stunned Nigeria to win the Aisha Buhari Cup final 4-2 in Lagos. It was the first time in history that an African opponent had scored four goals against Nigeria’s national women’s team. By this time, Ellis has become the heartbeat of South African women’s football.
There was more glory in store for Ellis and her all-conquering Banyana when it was announced that the South Africans were named the CAF ‘Women’s National Team of the Year’ after Saturday’s final against hosts Morocco.
In winning the award, Ellis saw off the challenges of three other coaches of women’s teams. All three had strong claims. They were Bruce Mwape (Zambia), Jerry Tshabalala (Mamelodi Sundowns) and Reynald Pedros (Morocco).
Ellis dedicated the award to her fellow coaches in Mzansi.
“This award for me is not an individual award. We always say when the team does well the individual stands out,” Ellis told the media in Morocco. “This is a team award because as a coach you work with a team, so if the team does well the individual stands out.
“I dedicate this award to the Banyana team and the coaches in our women’s football because of the contribution they have made to the national team for me to win this award.”
Tshabalala’s Sundowns claimed the other South African conquest at the awards. Sundowns were named Africa’s ‘Women’s Club of the Year’ after winning their domestic league and the inaugural CAF Women’s Champions League in Egypt in 2021.
After their maiden WAFCON conquest, South Africa can rightfully claim to be the best side on the continent, while several South African players have established themselves among the finest in Africa.
Starting with the last line of defence, South Africa’s shot-stopper Andile Dlamini was at the heart of the team’s conquest in Morocco. The judges of the CAF awards recognised her outstanding performance and named her ‘Goalkeeper of the Year’ at the annual awards function.
She kept three clean sheets in the six games she played at the tournament. The 29-year-old Dlamini has 60 national team caps and is nicknamed ‘Sticks’. Her name will be first on the list when deciding on the squad to play for Banyana Banyana in next year’s World Cup which will be co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand.
Banyana duo Noko Matlou and Bambanani Mbane will rank among the best defenders in Africa after WAFCON 2022. Both were solid in defence and opposition attackers hardly made leeway in the striking zone when Matlou and Mbane took control of the team’s penalty area.
The 166-capped Matlou, one of the most versatile players in the SA squad, was a tower of strength in defence and even at the age of 36 years, she shows no signs of slowing down.
Midfielder Refiloe Jane boasts 127 caps and is one of three players in the Banyana Banyana squad with more than 100 caps. She captained the side to a maiden WAFCON title and throughout the tournament led from the front.
One of SA’s most distinguished players is Thembi Kgatlana, South Africa’s 68-times capped striker. Her participation was cut short after the group clash against Nigeria, but it opened the way for other Banyana Banyana players to shine.
One was Jermaine Seoposenwe and the other was Hildah Magaia who has become an overnight hero following her brace in the final against Morocco.
Both players have surely secured their ticket to next year’s World Cup, co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand.
The WAFCON title could not have come at the right time for the national side which has been the torch-bearer for women in sport.
Banyana’s improvement over the years is slowly breaking the proverbial camel’s back with SAFA announcing a number of initiatives in recent years to invest in women footballers’ development. At club level the federation has the Hollywoodbets Super League which is aimed at making sure that women players are exposed to competitive sport week-in-week-out.
Banyana goalkeeper Andile Dlamini said the achievement in Morocco was necessary at this point to grow women’s football in South Africa. “Now that we have won the tournament, corporate South Africa will want to come on board and assist women’s football. Young girls will now be motivated to play football because the future is bright,” said Dlamini who won the CAF Women’s Champions League with Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies in November last year.
While the return is important, it also marks a start in efforts that need to be made to transform women’s sport, particularly at grassroots level not only in SA but across the continent.
Herman Gibbs is a Multimedia Journalist and IOL sports writer.