Johannesburg - Leandra Smeda’s new role in the South African women's senior national team, she was converted from a winger to a right-back, has made her appreciate the work done by those who have to cover for midfielders when they push forward even more.
But getting used to that position has taken some doing.
“It was frustrating at first because all my life I have been an attacker,” Smeda said. “All of a sudden I had to be a defender. It’s a demanding job but I am trying to adjust to the position. I enjoy it when we are playing a more free-flowing game because I get to push forward a lot. My background as a winger has helped me to adapt to this position. I know what to expect and how to position myself. I know that when you are playing a fast player, you shouldn’t be too tight on them because they will turn you easily or just put the ball a bit further and then beat you with their speed. My pace also helps me to cover for my centrebacks when I have to.”
That speed will come in handy for Banyana Banyana on Tuesday night (8pm) in the semi-final of the Africa Women Cup of Nations (AWC) in Limbe, against a fast Nigerian attack.
The Super Falcons, led by Arsenal Ladies forward Asisat Oshoala, have wiped the floor with their opponents. Six of the 11 goals Nigeria have scored have come from her.
In the last AWC, in Namibia 2014, Oshoala scored twice in Nigeria’s 2-1 win over Banyana in the semi-final. Smeda could only watch in amazement as she scored one of those goals. Then a midfielder, Smeda gingerly tracked back to try and stop the 22-year-old with little effort, knowing that marking the striker wasn’t her primary responsibility and that she was far from a dangerous position. It proved an incorrect assumption, Oshoala punishing Banyana with an audacious shot from a tight angle outside the box.
“We are capable of beating Nigeria,” Smeda said. “We just need to take the chances that we create because we know with them that every chance they create, they take it. That’s why they have scored so many goals in this tournament. They have a top striker in Oshoala, who is very composed in front of goal. She is a quality player. We need to put pressure on her, to try and frustrate her by not giving her any space. We know that she is quick and strong. We need to have someone on her. She is the person they look for when they go forward, even though they have other players around her who can score goals.”
Oshoala is living Smeda’s dream. The Capetonian has ambitions of playing in Europe for either Arsenal or Liverpool, even though she is a Manchester United fan. Liverpool signed the Nigerian forward last year after they were impressed by her stellar performance in 2014. That year she won the Golden Boot in both the AWC and the Fifa Under-20 World Cup, which earned her the 2015 BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year. Oshoala is now on the books of Arsenal. The England-based forward is one of 12 players in the Super Falcons squad who ply their trade abroad. After the release of Roxanne Barker, because of a toe injury, Banyana have one overseas-based player - Jermaine Seoposenwe, who plays her club football in the US.
“I think West Africans are hungrier than us to play abroad,” Smeda said. “I am not saying we aren’t hungry but our hunger isn’t on the same level as theirs. But there is also the fact that we don’t have a lot of agents in South Africa working with female footballers. They aren’t exposed to the women’s game.
“If our players go abroad, most of them go there through scholarships to study and play abroad. I think that the younger players should make use of those opportunities until the situation changes.
“There is a big gap between our university league and theirs, so they grow by being there. They are more competitive and they have more eyes watching them, so they could end up in bigger and better places. I still have a dream of playing abroad. But if it doesn’t happen, I will make the most of my time here, like helping Banyana become African champions for the first time.”