Banyana Banyana battled gamely, but eventually succumbed 1-0 to Sweden in the opening women’s soccer game of 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The national team turned in a defiant shift and it was only a horrendous error by goalkeeper Roxanne Barker that saw them robbed of a point against the more fancied Scandinavians. Much smaller than the Swedes, the South Africans struggled to assert themselves in midfield and their set-pieces were nullified by the considerable height advantage enjoyed by their opponents. However, they grew in confidence as the game wore and can be proud of themselves for a disciplined – albeit somewhat nervy, especially in front of goal – performance.
Banyana are making their second consecutive appearance at the Olympics, after making their bow at London 2012. This is no mean feat when you consider that they have to compete as part-timers against seasoned professionals. These efforts deserve more recognition. It is clear that Dutch coach Vera Pauw has instilled a level of determination and grit that is in stark contrast to their male counterparts, who are often castigated for lacklustre displays in the national jersey.
It strikes me as odd then that giants of the PSL do not field any women’s teams. It would be relatively simple investment with far-reaching effects for what is often lauded as the richest league on the continent. A limited pool of players could be a teething problem, but this could be solved by sourcing talent from other African countries and further afield. The Beautiful Game is the most popular sport on the planet for good reason. It is the sport of the people and requires little in the way of kit or personnel to get a game going. As we approach Women’s Day, it would do a lot to dispel the negative attitudes towards women’s participation in the sport in what is sadly still a largely patriarchal society.
SA’s football administrators should take a leaf out of the US’s book. Female footballers like Hope Solo and Mia Hamm are household names Stateside, garnering even more attention than the men. The sport is extremely popular among American women, with universities offering scholarships to talented athletes, and the results have come at international level. The US national side are the most successful side in the history of the women’s game, having won three World Cups. They are targeting a fifth gold medal in Brazil. What greater fillip do SA’s young female footballers need than a scholarship to a US university or a lucrative contract playing in Europe?
Exposure on TV, especially with regard to a proposed domestic league would do wonders for development. SuperSport broadcasts the MultiChoice Diski Challenge, featuring PSL reserve sides, and has showcased women’s cricket (the pay-TV broadcaster screened the South African team’s series against West Indies as curtain-raiser for the men’s games against England earlier in the year). Happily, women’s soccer follows the same structure as the men’s game, unlike tennis and cricket.
Here’s hoping Banyana can recover from their early setback in Rio and go on to eclipse the single point in their first Olympic outing. If they do, I’ll scout around for a Portia Modise jersey to wear on Football Fridays at the office. Perhaps it will be Banyana who bring the glory days of the mid-’90s back to the country.