Banyana Banyana have failed in their bid to make it to the finals of the African Women’s Championship, after losing 1-0 to the Black Queens of Ghana, who scored from a penalty awarded in the dying moments of last night’s pivotal semi-final.
The talk among the South Africans was confident in the lead-up to the match, with strong words from captain Portia Modise expecting victory, coach Augustine Makalakalane declaring his intentions for a Championship finals berth over Ghana, and FIFA expert Fran Hilton-Smith confidently talking her team up.
But the Ghanaians spoke loudest on the field last night, and the honour of representing the African continent at the world’s biggest showpiece, the FIFA 2007 Women’s World Cup in China, now rests on the shoulders of Nigeria and Ghana.
With the benefit of hindsight, Banyana’s chances may have been speared by two pivotal injuries, and concern at carrying five yellow card cautions into the tournament’s most critical encounter.
Bongiwe Radebe was substituted in the second half, after playing most of the first half in pain following a vicious tackle early in the first half, and in-form regular goalkeeper Itumeleng Chimeloane was reduced to a mere spectator, after a persistent shoulder injury prevented her from taking to the field.
Fran Hilton-Smith watched from the sides last night, as a buoyant Banyana seemed on-course for victory. “We had a large part of the game where we matched them man-for-man, they definitely weren’t better than us, that’s for sure!
“But we just could not convert our numerous chances, and that cost us the game,” said Hilton-Smith. "No matter what we tried, their goalkeeper saved it. She was in superb form on the night, and made a number of very good saves.”
Recounting the match’s final moments, Hilton-Smith expressed concern for the stand-in keeper, who celebrates her 21st birthday today in the most depressing manner. “Near the end, Banyana goalkeeper Brigitte Mohlale got the ball, which was very wet and slippery.
“She fumbled the ball, one of the Ghanaian players came around her and picked up the ball right near the goal-line, and she had to do something, so she brought the player down. That was what caused the penalty, from which Ghana scored.”
SAFA CEO Raymond Hack spoke to gsport of the organisation’s pride in Banyana following the defeat: “SAFA’s message to the team is one of congratulations, we’re very proud of them. We’ve got a very young team, and we believe we’ve got a future.”
In contrast to sentiments common when a coach fails in achieving high stakes, Hack was emphatic in SAFA’s support of coach Augustine Makalakalane: “We believe that he has done a good job, he’s definitely got a future.
“It’s never even been a discussion that, because they lost, the coach goes. They tried, but you know, football is a strange game, sometimes you may not play well, and you win. Sometimes you play very well, and you lose.”
Former Banyana Banyana captain Desiree Ellis joined Hack in her assessment of the team and their coach, telling gsport: “I’m actually proud to be a South African, because of the way they played.
“From early reporting, no-one really gave them a chance, but I think this is special for the coach, he shouldn’t be too disappointed. He’s really proved his mettle. I just hope SAFA can give him all the support [he needs].
“[Coach Makalakalane] has come in for a short period of time, he’s really done well. He didn’t get [all that he asked SAFA for before the tournament], but he didn’t go about moaning and groaning, he just went on and did the job.”
Hilton-Smith quickly dismissed indulgent wallowing in favour of increased effort with all eyes on the future. “If we continue in the fashion in which we’ve been going in the last six months, I think the team can only get better and better.
“This is a very good start for the coach, who only had the team for six months. In that time, he’s worked miracles with the team to get this far, because the team was really down. He’s done a lot of tremendous work, I think we’re only on the up now.”
Referring to the remaining African Women’s Championships third-fourth place play-offs scheduled against Cameroon on Friday, Hilton-Smith was bullish: “Certainly, we’re going out to win the game, we want the bronze medal. We want something to reward this team, who have put in the best performance by a Banyana team since 2000.
Then we now have the All-Africa Games end of January, and the Olympic qualifiers, the Olympic Games is in Beijing in 2008, and we need to start focussing on that,” said Hilton-Smith.
Ellis was likewise positive in her assessment of the team’s future. “These girls are still young enough to qualify for the next one, most of them are just before or in their early twenties, some in their late twenties.
“Some of them have failed at the under-19 level and the under-20 level to qualify for those world cups, and that must be absolutely devastating for them to have not qualified for a third time. But they’ve got the right management there, and with Fran, I don’t think that things can go wrong.”