Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis has a souvenir she shouldn’t have, let alone speak about. But that unfortunate souvenir served as motivation for her and her charges in their march to qualifying for the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup.
Their trip to France next year should have been for their second successive appearance in the global showpiece, but they slipped up in the third-place playoff against Ivory Coast in the 2014 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (Awcon) in Namibia. In their anticipation of a win before the playoff even happened, they already had T-shirts on which “Canada Here We Come” was printed. Of course, Canada went on to host the 2015 Fifa Women’s World Cup, but because they only managed to finish fourth in Namibia, Bayana’s T-shirts only served as embarrassing reminders of their failure.
But Ellis kept her T-shirt, as she revealed late on Tuesday night after becoming the first coach to lead the senior women’s national football team to qualifying for a World Cup. “I kept that T-shirt because I wanted a reminder,” Ellis said at the Elmina Beach Resort in Cape Coast, Ghana. “I wanted a reminder of that disappointment to drive us as a group. I wanted a reminder that said: ‘That happened then, we are going to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.’
“It reminded me of how hard we worked then and how we have to work even harder this time around to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. I looked at that T-shirt before I came to this tournament. I almost brought it with me here. I can now put this T-shirt [she says, pointing at the T-shirt she was wearing] in a prominent place and throw the other one away. We wanted to make sure that we bury the ghost of 2014. It’s truly buried.”
On Tuesday night Ellis could, with confidence, wear the crisp white T-shirt on which this time “France Here We Come” was printed.
Recovering from disappointment
The ghost of Namibia took a lot to exorcise. The disappointment of that tournament drained the players physically and emotionally. “I sometimes look at the clip after the end of the match against Ivory Coast. I see the tears of Andile [Dlamini]. I see Janine [van Wyk] doing an interview and just wanting to get away from the interviewer. I see Simphiwe [Dludlu, who was a player at the time and is now coach of the women’s national Under-17 team] praying for divine intervention,” Ellis recollects with a lump in her throat.
Qualification for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio wiped away the tears but didn’t remove the heartache, which lingered on. The healing process was slow and painful, as the team underwent a transition with new blood introduced and Ellis replacing coach Vera Pauw after holding the post in the interim for more than a year.
Ellis points to Banyana’s victory over Zambia after penalties in last year’s Cosafa Women’s Championship as their first big step towards booking a ticket to France. Banyana were 3-0 down with 15 minutes to go in the semifinal at Barbourfields Stadium in Zimbabwe. It could have been 4-0 had Zambia not missed a penalty in the second half.
With their elimination all but confirmed, Banyana threw caution to the wind and attacked the Zambians, managing to equalise by full time and eventually win the final in a shootout. That victory gave Ellis the honour of being the first South African to win the tournament as player and as coach. “All of a sudden, we had this energy even though we were trailing 3-0 and that’s why I say it wasn’t just us on the field, it was someone else,” said Ellis.
“It was someone of a higher being. Before we knew it, it was 3-3 and I had to calm the players down. The whole mind-set and mentality changed after that game because most people used to say that we aren’t mentally strong. That’s when the whole group started to believe that we can [qualify for the World Cup]. From that moment on the team has just gotten better and better.”
Banyana retained that trophy in September in their own backyard, beating a second-string Cameroon side in the final to continue their upward trajectory. Before that, they finished sixth in the 12-team Cyprus Cup. The consistent feature in those three tournaments was Thembi Kgatlana leading the side. Kgatlana’s performances earned her a nomination for the 2017 CAF Footballer of the Year.
‘Thembi is capable of more’
Kgatlana lost out to Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala for the CAF award, she did, however, win the 2017 Cosafa Women’s Championship Player of the Tournament and was named Most Valuable Player in the Cyprus Cup, even though Banyana weren’t in the group of teams that fighting for the title. Ellis’ assessment of Kgatlana’s performance, a leading candidate for the Awcon’s Player of the Tournament, should scare Nigeria, Banyana’s opponents in the final on Saturday at Accra Sports Stadium (kickoff 6pm SAST).
“We know what Thembi can do. She’s scored in every game so far in the tournament but that’s not her best. Thembi is capable of more,” said Ellis. “Hopefully in the final she can show people what she is capable of because she knows how to rise to the occasion. Thembi frightens everyone she comes up against. They know what’s coming but they can’t stop her. Hopefully this is the start of bigger things to come for her. She’s really worked hard in the last two years. Every time she touches the ball, you expect something to happen. That’s the way she plays, she wears her heart on her sleeve.”
But Nigeria’s Super Falcons don’t scare easily. If they did, they wouldn’t have won this tournament 10 times in 12 editions. “We have to take this trophy back to Nigeria to show that we are still the giants of African football,” said Nigerian forward Ngozi Okobi at the AH Hotel in Accra. “Our loss to South Africa in the group stage was good for the team. It was a wake-up call and boosted our morale because we worked even harder after it. We knew we would bounce back but it was a message that we needed to hear. We needed to be the Super Falcons and not stress ourselves about one result in a long tournament. I am looking forward to the final. It’s going to be fun.”
Facing Nigeria hasn’t been fun for Banyana Banyana in the past. But that is slowly changing, with the players becoming more confident in themselves and their talent. Their 1-0 win over the Super Falcons in the opening round of the group stage proved that. Now they have to repeat that in Ghana’s capital, with the honour of being Africa’s finest up for grabs.
“We’ve always had Nigeria in our pockets and we lose to them in the last minute,” Kgatlana says. “This year things changed. We took advantage of that. When we scored, we had to switch on. A lot of teams would say that when South Africa scores, they have a chance to quickly equalise because we always lose concentration after scoring. But in that game against Nigeria, it wasn’t the case. We are now mentally stronger than before and we don’t fear anyone or anything.”
Kgatlana’s transformation in the last two years is almost similar to that of Banyana. At the 2016 Awcon in Cameroon, she created many chances but her conversion rate was poor. The difference in this year’s Awcon is that she is converting chances as well as continuing to torment defenders with pace and trickery.
“The difference between the Thembi from 2016 and the one I am now is the hunger, and the fact that I became a professional player this year with Houston Dash,” said Kgatlana. “That really helped me a lot. The NWSL [National Women’s Soccer League in the US] is the most competitive league in the whole world. I got to be there under [former] coach Pauw’s wing.
“She had confidence in me, although I didn’t get to start a lot of games for Houston Dash. I didn’t get a lot of game time. I got about 16 appearances, I scored two goals and had two assists. For someone who comes from the bench and plays about 15 minutes per game, that’s not a bad a start. I came here hungry. I wanted to play more and more. I thought, why not use this opportunity because I am getting game time and there are no excuses here.”
Her relationship with Ellis, who gives her plenty of freedom, has also contributed to her growth. “Coach Des believes in me so much that when she throws me in the starting line-up or in the second half, she knows that I am going to bring change into the game and get a goal or two, or assist someone who is in a better position,” said Kgatlana.
“I’ve done that quite well throughout the tournament. I am looking to keep that in my game. The other thing she always tells me is that my speed threatens people, they don’t know what to do. They end up giving me the ball. That really motivates me as a player, having a coach who believes in me.”
Banyana’s final against Nigeria isn’t the end of a chapter like most finals are. It’s the start of a new chapter centred on the trip to France next year. For them to be able to hold their own against the best in the world, they must be able to first beat the best in Africa. And they don’t come any bigger, meaner and more successful than the Super Falcons.
Forget the T-shirt with the message of going to France, a winners’ medal would be a fitting souvenir to make up for every disappointment Ellis and her team have endured. It’s a souvenir they would carry with pride.