Thunderbirds celebrates a goal during the SASOL League National Championship at Kabokweni Stadium. Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix
The Sasol League National Championships, which pits the nine provincial winners against each other in order to crown the overall South African champions, exposes the good and bad in women’s football in the country.

This year’s tournament held at Kabokweni Stadium showed the standard of women’s football is growing. It was more competitive and entertaining than previous editions. There wasn’t much space to hide except for the traditional whipping girls of inter-provincial tournaments - a team from Northern Cape. RC Mills finished at the bottom after conceding 13 goals in two games without a response. Take them and De Scorpions of North West away and you are left with seven competitive teams that showed the future is bright.

But this isn’t the time for celebrations. This should be the time for self-introspection and drive to improve things in the women’s game. There needs to be more of the best playing against the best so that teams improve and the standard is raised.

“The important thing in development is to get the best playing against the best because you will have quality matches every week and the players will be challenged and will grow,,” Banyana Banyana interim coach Desiree Ellis told me. “That would lead to players working harder because they know they have to compete. It will raise the standard and it will bridge the gap between the Sasol League and international football. But you also need one structure below to feed the Sasol League. What people forget is that our players are amateurs, yet we are qualifying for major tournaments. But with more structures and the better players playing against the best, will help us go forward.”

What impressed me the most here is the growth of Noxolo and Sinoxolo Cesane. I saw the Cape Town Roses twins for the first time in Port Elizabeth in the 2014 championships. That year they played with youthful exuberance and a carefree nature in their second appearance in the championships at the age of 14. They were taken to the High Performance Centre and transformed to mature and tactically smarter players.

Nomonde Nomtsheke of Bloemfontein Celtic Ladies is challenged by Zimasa Dekeda of Thunderbirds during the SASOL League National Championship at Kabokweni Stadium. Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix

The Sasol League is a good ground for unearthing talent. But there needs to be a way to nurture that talent and ensure that it’s not lost. The women’s game needs more than just a professional league. The standard of officiating needs to improve. Safa need to ensure that referees are not only properly trained but they also send enough officials to cover matches and they arrive there on time. There are too many instances of clubs waiting for referees who don’t show up on time and when they do, there aren’t enough of them. There were two instead of four officials in the crucial decider between Mamelodi Sundowns Ladies and Palace Super Falcons that ended in a brawl as the officials couldn’t control the match.

If the officiating could improve, and there are more competitions for players to test themselves against the best and we do a better job at nurturing talent, women’s football will grow.

It must be a concern that Bloemfontein Celtic Ladies have represented Free State every year since the tournament’s inception in 2009. Take nothing away from the good job that the club does, but they aren’t challenged enough in the province as they even win the league unbeaten.

I can bet you my non-existent fortune that Gauteng will be represented by either Mamelodi Sundowns, Palace Super Falcons or JVW FC next year. Those are the strongest teams in the region while the rest have no hope because of the gulf in class.

The national league should also look at solving some of those problems. A lot needs to be done to also try and bridge the gap in the provinces that are lagging behind because they will continue to be thumped in such tournaments without them getting help.

If you look at what women sacrifice to play the game that they love, without earning much if anything at all, we owe them better treatment. I was blown away when I heard the story of Sunflower FC, the exciting and innovative team from Hammersdale.

They are more than just a football club, being involved in numerous charity initiatives that seek to make girls’ lives better as well as help their community. We need more Sunflowers across the country which means more corporate and business support.

Saturday Star

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