No matter what happens in France this summer, the players that make up the South Africa women’s national team are already legends.
The manager, Desiree Ellis, was there for the first match the South African women’s team ever played back in 1993. Ellis scored a hat trick in that inaugural match. Six of the 23 women in the squad have amassed more than 90 caps. Banyana Banyana captain Janine van Wyk has played 163 matches for her country, and Noko Matlou 153—no South African, man or woman, has more international caps. van Wyk plays for JVW FC at club level; she started that eponymous team in 2013 and has grown it from a single 13-woman senior team into a full club with multiple youth divisions and a South African first division title in the trophy cabinet. Mamello Makhabane is a current teammate of van Wyk’s at JVW; 20-year-old midfield talent Linda Motlhalo, a former Houston Dash player, got her start at JVW.
A few of the women on this World Cup roster have been with the team since South Africa qualified for their first ever major tournament, the 2012 Olympics. Half the roster was there when South Africa made it to their second Olympics four years later. And now the group has reached the sport’s pinnacle by qualifying for the World Cup. Because of their glorious, pioneering pasts and present, because they have come so far and taken South African women’s soccer with them, when the opening whistle sounds on Saturday bringing their debut match to a start, everyone on the South African team will already be icons.
Of course, Banyana Banyana wouldn’t be where they are today if they rested on their laurels, so South Africa will treat this trip to France as more than just a vacation. South Africa’s goals in France should be modest: score their first World Cup goal; try to pull off their first win in a major tournament (the team drew twice and lost four times across their two Olympic Games); maybe see if they can sneak out of the group. That first objective is perfectly attainable; the latter two will be tough. Group B foes Germany, China, and Spain are all in the top 20 of FIFA’s rankings and as such will each be looking to grab three points against the 49th-ranked South Africans.
Still, South Africa have reason to hope. The team has demonstrated impressive defensive solidity in recent years, and is only a year removed from their best ever Africa Women Cup of Nations performance. If one or two of the foreign-based attacking talents can pop in a couple key goals, South Africa might just pull off a surprise.
Goalkeepers: Mapaseka Mpuru (University of Pretoria), Andile Dlamini (Mamelodi Sundowns), Kaylin Swart (Golden Stars)
Defenders: Lebogang Ramalepe (Ma-Indies), Nothando Vilakazi (Gintra Universitetas), Noko Matlou (Ma-Indies), Janine van Wyk (JVW), Karabo Dhlamini (Mamelodi Sundowns), Bambanani Mbane (Bloemfontein Celtic), Tiisetso Makhubela (Mamelodi Sundowns), Bongeka Gamede (UWC Ladies)
Midfielders: Mamello Makhabane (JVW), Linda Motlhalo (Beijing Phoenix), Refiloe Jane (Canberra United), Leandra Smeda (Vittsjö GIK), Kholosa Biyana (University of KwaZulu-Natal), Busisiwe Ndimeni (TUT-PTA), Sibulele Holweni (Sophakama Ladies)
Forwards: Ode Fulutudilu (Málaga), Amanda Mthandi (University of Johannesburg), Thembi Kgatlana (Beijing Phoenix), Jermaine Seoposenwe (Gintra Universitetas)
South Africa will have to be defensively sound if they are to have any chance of getting a good result in France. That will be a struggle, though not an insurmountable one. Banyana Banyana haven’t won a single World Cup tune-up match in nine tries this year, and haven’t beaten a non-African team since March of 2018. They’ve been able to find the back of the net in most of their matches in 2019, but keeping a clean sheet has been difficult.
However, South Africa do have history turning up the D when it matters. Though they went winless in the 2016 Olympics, they only gave up three goals in as many matches. And last year, in their run to the African Women’s Championship final, where they lost to permachampions Nigeria on penalties, South Africa only conceded twice in five games.
It helps that South Africa’s most experienced players are on the back line. Janine van Wyk, Noko Matlou (who was South Africa’s star striker in her younger days before switching to defense in recent years), and Nothando Vilakazi have 449 caps between them, with an old-but-hardly-geriatric average age of about 32. Those players know how to shut up shop, and they’ll get plenty of help from their midfield teammates who’ll know that a clean sheet is the best path to success.
Going forward, South Africa will focus on fast, careful counter attacks by sending a limited number of players forward so as not to jeopardize the defense. South Africa’s most talented pair of attack-minded players are Thembi Kgatlana and Linda Motlhalo. The promising young duo have played together at club level for a while now, first for the Houston Dash and now for Beijing Phoenix. That familiarity should help them play their best.
Motlhalo is a midfielder with plenty of speed and sauce:
Kgatlana is a goal-hungry striker who is the reigning African player of the year, an award she won mostly for the five goals she scored to lead South Africa to the AWCON final. Here she is doing cool things for the Dash:
June 8, 12 p.m.: Spain vs. South Africa at Stade Océane
June 13, 3 p.m.: South Africa vs. China at Parc des Princes
June 17, 12 p.m.: South Africa vs. Germany at Stade de la Mosson
All times Eastern