Banyana Banyana have emerged as top contenders for two possible African berths in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, after twice coming from behind to beat Zimbabwe 3-2 in Harare on Saturday, in a draining encounter.
“It was a very tough game,” an exhausted Fran Hilton-Smith told gsport once the physical second-round elimination tester was decided, in which the South Africans sought a clear victory to progress after winning the home leg 2-1.
“Yeah, look, I think we’ve done extremely well, they’ve shown that the team has depth, and can play for 90 minutes, that’s a crucial factor, that we can keep playing, and not give up when we’re down.
Part of national coach Augustine Makalakalane pre-match tactics was to play his charges against superior boys opposition, “… so the girls were challenged mentally, when they’re conceding a goal against a team that is overpowering them most of the time in the game,” he told gsport on Thursday.
And vital preparation was justified in the end, as Zimbabwe dominated early to lead the match 1-0 at half-time, and Banyana would have been dreading elimination.
“(But) we came back in the second half,” said Hilton-Smith, “Equalised, they scored again to lead 2-1, and we came back again and equalised, and then in the death scored a goal.
“Another thing that was good for us,” continued Hilton-Smith, “Is that three different players scored, the first goal was Veronica Phewa with a beautiful header, second goal Hlengiwe Ngwane from a free kick, beautiful goal, and then the last one in the dying minutes from Belinda Nkosi.
“It’s very consoling for us that we’re not relying on one player to score, or to pull us out of trouble. We have various players that can stand up and be counted,” the proud team mentor said.
In addition, the team management’s decision to rush home Lena Mosebo from the USA, and long-time captain Portia Modise from Europe, paid handsome dividends. “Well, Lena played the whole game, had an absolutely superb game, stunning, was up and down the left side of the field, was worth every bit of bringing her back, she was 10 out of 10, superb.
“Bashin (Portia Modise) we only brought on in the second half,” explained Hilton-Smith, “Because we found previously that if she played, the players are inclined to just keep passing her the ball, and they don’t play.
“We kept her on the bench, let the others play, let her study the game, tire out the opposition, and then bring her on. She didn’t score any goals, but her presence was there, and that was important.
The physical nature of African women’s soccer wasn’t absent from Saturday’s match either. “They were very physical today” said Hilton-Smith.
“(They) kicked at a number of our players, especially Janine van Wyk, every time someone kicked it (the ball) near her, they let her know she was in the game with kicks and pushes and shoves. But they managed to recover, and stayed in the game.”
Makalakalane team fondness of the off-side trap was employed to good effect as in the home leg three weeks ago, catching the Zimbabweans out time and again.
“They persistently played in an off-sides position,” said Hilton-Smith, “Which cost them many chances, because they are very strong in attack, but our defenders were very quick to push up, and invariably caught them.”
Having seen off key African competitors Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe, South Africa now enter a four-nations round-robin final stage, most likely against Nigeria, Ghana and Ethiopia or Morocco, starting on the 29th of July at home against Nigeria, three days after the All-Africa Games in Algiers ends.
“We have to go to the All-Africa Games on the 6th of July,” said Hilton-Smith. “It’s a bit disrupting because we’re there until the 24th of July, we come back that Tuesday, and that weekend we have to play Nigeria, so it’s a bit disconcerting.
“We’re going to have to try and utilize as many players in those matches as possible, so we don’t tire our players. But Nigeria’s also at the All-Africa Games, so they’re in the same position.”
Banyana Banyana has been drawn in Group A that also features Olympic hopefuls Nigeria and Ethiopia pitted against Mozambique, and should the South Africans finish in the top two of their group, they will progress to challenge the best of Ghana, Cameroon, Algeria and Senegal for African honours in the All-African Games final on 22 July, in Aout.