Wishing Banyana well
Sport24 columnist Mark Gleeson (File)
Over the next weeks, South Africa’s footballing focus will fall on women’s football. It is a rare chance in the limelight for a marginal sector of the sport, struggling to gain credibility, establish their relevance in a crowded market and gain some international success.
In just over two weeks, the women’s national side competes at the Olympic Games, having qualified for a major FIFA tournament for the first time.
They are just one of 12 teams at the tournament, taking advantage of the fact Africa has two reserved places for political rather than sporting reasons.
Usually it is Ghana and Nigeria who compete on the continent’s behalf. This time Cameroon and Banyana are the surprise pair.
Unlike the men, though, this is a tournament at full international level. The men’s event is played at Under-23 level because FIFA does not what a mini-world championship to detract from the four-yearly cycle of the Soccer World Cup.
In fact, if FIFA had their way they wouldn’t be at the Olympics at all, but football goes back almost a century now at the Games and still sells the most tickets. That is why the International Olympic Committee is prepared to bend and to allow an age restriction for football whereas all the other sports feature only the best in their field.
Women’s football in South Africa struggled for years to get off the ground or even be taken seriously. In the early days, the national side even had to buy their own kit.
But SAFA have long since come around to the fact that the women’s market is one of great potential and been much more proactive in developing it.
The Olympic-bound Banyana have had millions put at their disposal to prepare as best they can for the tournament. And so it should be.
We are a far cry from the days when women’s matches were played as curtain-raisers to men’s games and served more for comedic effect.
Cultural and social barriers against women competing are breaking down daily.
Banyana can take this a step further and encourage much more participation if they can prove Olympic heroes. But the reality of the state of the women’s game is that there is still a major gap between the established powers and the developing world and they are not expected to do well.
Particularly in the physical way the Americans and Europeans now play the game. Those who have not watched women’s football at the top level ever, or for a long time, will be astounded with just how good they are ... at everything. It used to be the girls got tired easily and the matches were error prone. No longer.
But Africa is still playing catch up and Banyana know they have a tough group, which includes last year’s World Cup winners Japan. Not only do they carry their own dreams and the support of the South African football-loving public but they have a responsibility to the future too, to inspire girls to take up the game and built up the strength of the game.
The immediate task ahead of them is tough. We wish them well.Mark Gleeson is a respected television commentator and Editorial Director of Mzanzi Football.
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