South Africa make their Women’s World Cup debut on Saturday against Spain in the French port city of Le Havre having failed to win in 10 matches since qualifying last November.
Banyana Banyana (The Girls) defeated Mali 2-0 in an African championship semi-final seven months ago through goals from star striker Thembi Kgatlana and Lebogang Ramalepe.
But after securing a World Cup place for the first time, the team has drawn four matches and lost six while scoring only eight goals and conceding a worrying 24.
The most recent loss, a 7-2 hiding from fellow finalists Norway in Amiens last Sunday, was the heaviest with a prolonged pre-match bus journey partly blamed for the embarrassing result.
“Our drive to the stadium lasted almost four hours instead of the planned 90 minutes,” coach and former Banyana midfielder Desiree Ellis told AFP.
“The pre-match preparations were rushed, and poor defending left us trailing by five goals at half-time before a substantial second-half improvement enabled us to score twice.”
Ellis admitted a similar sluggish start against Spain – 36 places higher than South Africa in the world rankings – will spell disaster at the 25,000-capacity Stade Oceane.
“We have to concentrate from the kick-off, cut out loose defending and work harder for each other because many of our losses have come from conceding goals in the opening 30 minutes.”
Germany (ranked second in the world), Spain (13) and China (16) are expected to fight for two or three places in the second round with South Africa, the clear outsiders in Group B.
However, Ellis refuses to accept her squad are lambs facing the slaughter in a competition where African teams have traditionally struggled.
“It certainly is not going to be easy for us, and the first match against Spain is vital. They are used to playing at a higher level than us.
“Spain like to play the ball around and so do we, so the team that craves victory the most is likely to win the match.
“I can assure South Africans that my players will never give up. While our build-up results have been disappointing, the wonderful spirit in the camp has never wavered.”
Reigning African Women’s Footballer of the Year Kgatlana, who plays in China after her contract with an American team expired, remains upbeat despite the 10-game winless run.
“Losing makes us conscious of our shortcomings and drives us to improve, whereas a successful build-up might have hoodwinked us into believing we were world-beaters.
“We played some of the best teams in the world, including the Americans, Norwegians, Dutch and Swedes, in warm-up matches and have learnt a lot.
“Good preparations are more important than results when gearing up for the World Cup, and you will see a very different South African team against Spain,” Kgatlana predicted.
Netherlands-born Vera Pauw, a former coach of Banyana, believes the debutants can cause surprises in France during the 7 June – 7 July women’s football showcase.
“Germany will be a huge hurdle, but they can defeat Spain and China. I do not envisage them battling to cope with the challenges of the group.
“It is wonderful to see South Africa at the World Cup for the first time, and qualification has come as a result of long-term planning by the national football association.”
Banyana will be captained by veteran centre-back Janine van Wyk, who is thrilled by the media attention the team is finally receiving.
“For us to be the lead story on the back pages of some Johannesburg newspapers this week is fantastic,” she said.
“Being the no-hopers in the group can work to our advantage. The pressure is off us to some extent and on our opponents,” said the defender capped more than 150 times by her country.
Janine van Wyk
African champions Nigeria and Cameroon are the other African contenders in the 24-team field with the United States seeking a record-extending fourth title.
© Agence France-Presse