Big day finally arrives for Banyana and coach Desiree Ellis
South Africa open up their FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign against Spain in Le Havre on Saturday with nerves‚ excitement and some trepidation ahead of what will be a long-awaited debut on the greatest stage in female football.
It has been a journey of 26 years to get to this point from the first international played by the side in 1993 to finally taking their place among the world’s elite.
Some of the cast remains the same‚ Desiree Ellis was captain of that first ever Banyana Banyana side‚ and now she leads the team as coach.
She has spoken much of the anxiety the team is feeling‚ and how they cannot wait for the football to begin.
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That they face a daunting group is no understatement‚ but the only way they can tackle what is before them is to embrace the challenge and face it head on.
“Nervous … I’m nervous because looking back to the day we qualified for the World Cup [at the Africa Women’s Championship]‚ and now it is two days to go‚” Banyana vice-captain Lebo Ramalepe said.
“I never thought we would reach this point and this is it‚ we have to do it now. But everyone in the team is ready for the game on Saturday.”
The build-up has been difficult for the side‚ perhaps a portent of what lies ahead‚ culminating in last Sunday’s 7-2 defeat to Norway in which they were 5-0 down at the break.
“It was kind of embarrassing‚ we as players want to do better‚” Ramalepe says‚ believing that performance was a one-off.
“I think we will do much better on Saturday than many people expect. We are doing it for ourselves and the country.
“The country has been with us all this time‚ but after the result of the Norway game they want to see us coming out and having a positive frame of mind.”
Banyana are winless in their last 10 internationals‚ though they have played some top teams in that run – world number one United States‚ Sweden‚ Netherlands and Nigeria.
Saturday’s game against Spain will set the tone – a positive result and all things are possible‚ but a heavy defeat and they will be on the back foot immediately.
“Any time you play a first game in a tournament‚ it is like a final match‚" she said.
"You have to collect points‚ and both teams will be desperate for the three points. We really want it. I believe we will come out with a positive response.”
For Ramalepe and many of her teammates it has been a hard slog to reach the World Cup.
Unlike their male counterparts‚ most in the squad play for the love of the game rather than remuneration‚ and that comes with its own challenges.
“It’s not easy to be here‚ you have put in a lot of sacrifice and go through a lot of obstacles‚" she said.
"It is not about you though‚ it is about the pride of the nation. You must give the nation what they deserve‚ but you are also building a brand for yourself.”
The last point is key for many of the Banyana players.
The eyes of the world will be on them and it is a chance for many to join the list over overseas-based‚ paid‚ professionals‚ finally earning a living out of the game.
“If things go according to plan‚ I could find myself with a contract to play outside of the country‚ that will be an achievement for me‚” Ramalepe says.
“I have been doing well since I started playing in the national team and I feel my hard-work is being recognised.”
As for how far they can go in a group that also includes top side China and world number two Germany‚ Ramalepe says they just want to represent the country with pride and show that South African football is on the rise.
“It is our first World Cup‚ we must ensure that the performance we give in each and every game‚ no-one will forget‚" she said.
"That is what we want to achieve as a team.
“I think that if‚ at the end of the tournament‚ people are talking about how Banyana Banyana were here‚ that would be good tournament for us.”