Banyana home to big welcome

Nigeria’s Ihezuo Chinwendu and Jermaine Seoposenwe, of SA, battle for possession during the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations final in Accra, Ghana, on Saturday
Nigeria’s Ihezuo Chinwendu and Jermaine Seoposenwe, of SA, battle for possession during the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations final in Accra, Ghana, on Saturday

Banyana Banyana returned home to a heroes’ welcome at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport on Sunday afternoon after qualifying for next year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup for the first time a few days ago.

Coach Desiree Ellis and her charges were greeted by a multitude of fans after ending years of heartache, finally qualifying for the global showpiece to be held in France.

Dignitaries in attendance included sports minister Tokozile Xasa‚ minister of women in the presidency Bathabile Dlamini and Safa president Danny Jordaan.

Banyana were beaten 4-3 on penalties by perennial nemesis Nigeria in the final of the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations in Accra on Saturday.

And while that defeat was painful after they had come so agonisingly close to finally winning a maiden continental title‚ the South Africans can take solace from earning a ticket to the World Cup.

They had already guaranteed qualification to the global tournament after beating Mali 2-0 in the semifinals of the continental event.

The dreaded penalty shootout lottery did not smile on Banyana Banyana as Nigeria pipped them 4-3 to collect their 11th Africa Women’s Cup of Nations.

The sides were goalless after extra time at the Accra Sports Stadium, but Linda Mothlalo and Lebohang Ramalepe missed their penalties.

However, Banyana are heroines and this final failure is no slight on them.

That the game went to penalties was indicative of how far SA have come against Nigeria. In the past, Banyana were often beaten heavily.

Banyana have not only the tenacity, but also the tactical smarts to go toe to toe with them.

The best part was that they went hammer and tongs at each other for the two hours.

At no stage did the commitment of the combatants waver.

While they have secured the key goal of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in France, they had scores to settle.

SA’s group stage win against the Super Falcons meant they had to qualify for the World Cup the hard way by having to beat Cameroon on penalties in the semifinals.

Also, Nigeria are not accustomed to losing to SA at any level, and the group stage loss stung them severely.

However, these sides were head and shoulders the best teams in the tournament and deserved to hold court in the showpiece game. While the heavy surface did not allow for free-flowing soccer, Banyana again showed superb defensive composure to soak up the Super Falcons’ pressure.

Nigeria’s star forward Asisat Oshoala tested Banyana keeper Kaylin Swart, but she was equal to the task in the third minute.

While Busisiwe Ndimeni had a very good free kick saved by Nigeria’s goalkeeper Oluehi Tochukwu, SA had more time on the ball, but Nigeria were asking all the pertinent attacking questions.

Swart had to pull off a superb 24th-minute save from a long-range Josephine Chukwunonye grass-cutter from just outside the box.

A while later, captain Janine van Wyk had to make an important intervention to prevent Oshoala from having a one-on-one opportunity against Swart.

Thembi Kgatlana had a quiet first half by her lofty tournament standards, but was well watched by Nigerian centreback Onome Ebi.

Another impressive aspect of Banyana’s display was how they quickly adapted to life without their midfield enforcer Refiloe Jane.

Ndimeni was at times caught for pace but never lost her composure.