Yaounde - Bambanani Mbane’s calmness under pressure doesn’t show that this Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (AWC) is her first major tournament. Not even a 35 000 strong Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo, against the hosts Cameroon, could intimidate the 26-year-old centreback who went about her business like a veteran.

She tidied up things at the back with her clean tackles and ability to play out of the box instead of hoofing the ball forward. Those qualities impressed former coach Vera Pauw. The Dutch coach brought Mbane, pictured, into the Banyana Banyana set-up last year after seeing her play in the Sasol League in Bethlehem. Pauw drafted her into the Olympics squad without having ever played for Banyana in a competitive match.

“I learned a lot from the Olympics,” Mbane said. “I knew that I had to improve if I wanted to make my way into the team and start. That hard work has paid off and that’s why I am playing here. The plan was to make it difficult for the coach to drop me once I got my chance. I think that I have done that so far. I am more confident now because I was given a chance and I used it. I am playing with experienced players in Janine (van Wyk), Vivo (Nothando Vilakazi), Noko (Matlou) and Leandra (Smeda). They helped me to settle down quickly and not be overwhelmed by everything.”

Those four players, along with Mbane, are likely to start at the back tonight against Nigeria in the semi-final of the AWC in Limbe. Kick-off is 8pm South African time. Interim coach Desiree Ellis fielded three centrebacks - Mbane, Matlou and Van Wyk - against Egypt to give the fullbacks Smeda and Vilakazi more freedom to go forward. That turned Banyana into a stronger unit when they went forward with solid support at the back when they defended. They will need that security against Nigeria’s strong attack led by Asisat Oshoala. Desire Oparanozie supports her with her strength. The pair has scored seven of the 11 goals that the Super Falcons scored in the group stage. Oshoala scored six of those goals, one more than what Banyana have managed so far.

“We are hoping that we get more from her (Oshoala) in the semi-final,” Nigeria’s coach Florence Omagbemi said. “But it is not all about her. We are trying to build a strong unit so that we can win as a team.”

Both coaches are in charge of their nations in the interim. They have faced each other before as players. The motivation to win this AWC is different. For Ellis, this tournament is about achieving things that she couldn’t as a player and then captain … become an African champion. She lost in two finals as a player, in 1995 and in 2000. In both instances Banyana lost to Nigeria. For Omagbemi, this is about continuing where she left of as a player and captain. The 41-year-old coach won this tournament four times as a player, including the 2000 edition.

“We will approach the game against South Africa just like we have approached the other ones,” Omagbemi said. “We know that when you reach this stage you will find tougher opponents. The challenge in the semi-final is different from the one in the group stage. We know that this is a once-off clash unlike the group stage, if you lose there is no coming back.”

* Njabulo Ngidi is in Cameroon courtesy of Sasol

The Star