Phew! Banyana handed a toughie

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Jacob_Mkhonza Gallo Images Banyana Banyana coach Joseph Mkhonza.

Joseph Mkhonza forced a lazy laugh. Amanda Dlamini went “iyoo”. Fran Hilton-Smith sighed “phew”.

These key members of the South African women’s senior national team were reacting to the 2012 Olympic football tournament draw in London on Tuesday.

Drawn in a group that includes world champions Japan, Olympic ever-presents Sweden, as well as Cyprus Cup finalists Canada, Banyana Banyana are in for a real baptism of fire at the games. That much the trio acknowledged.

“There’s nothing we can do but go out there and do our best,” said coach Mkhonza during a telephonic interview from London immediately after the draw.

“Japan, ha ha. Just the team I’d hoped we’d avoid. But to be the best, we have to play against the best.”

Dlamini, Banyana’s captain, could not hide her surprise: “Iyoo, this is a very competitive draw. We’re in for a lot of running, hey? Japan are hectic, they never stop. We’re going to have to work very hard to raise our fitness levels because it won’t be just about skills and talent.”

Women’s football director Hilton-Smith seemed to know just what Banyana are in for on their maiden Olympic journey.

“Phew, this is tough. All these countries are very good. But there’s no easy group; the other two are also difficult. Whichever country we could have drawn would have been tough opposition. We must just go there and do the best we can.”

Banyana will open their Olympic campaign with a clash against Sweden in Coventry on July 25, then face Canada at the same venue on July 27 before going in against world champions Japan in Cardiff on July 31.

While he acknowledged to not knowing much about Sweden, Mkhonza said he’d seen Japan when they won the World Cup and had an idea what to expect.

“Canada were at the Cyprus Cup and we saw them there, so we know what kind of team they are. We will prepare accordingly.”

Dlamini described the Canadians as “playing similar to us”.

But Banyana need not worry much about garnering information about their opposition. Hilton-Smith has the insight into just about all the countries that will be contesting for Olympic glory in London.

She is a member of the Fifa Technical Study Group that is assigned to assess teams at major events.

“I worked at the previous Olympics in Germany and the World Cup in Brazil. So I’ve studied most of the teams,” she said on Tuesday from London. “I’ve studied Sweden many times and I have notes on Japan from the World Cup. Fortunately, I’ve kept copies of my technical study reports from those tournaments and we will use them in our preparations.”

Hilton-Smith is of the opinion that Banyana can make it to the quarter-finals of the 12-team tournament.

“Obviously Japan will be favourites to top our group. And then from there it will be a battle for second spot. But I think we can hold our own against Sweden. The good thing for us is that these countries’ teams have not changed much from the previous events. So the study notes we’ll be using will still be relevant.”

Besides the notes, Hilton-Smith also has videos from those tournaments and Mkhonza and his team are sure to spend a significant part of their camp, that starts next week in Stellenbosch, glued to the screen and learning about their opposition. – Star Africa

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