JOHANNESBURG – Banyana Banyana might have failed to improve their record in the Cyprus Cup but coach Desiree Ellis believes that the team has progressed, which puts them in a good position to make their maiden World Cup appearance.
The senior women’s national team finished sixth - ahead of Austria, Wales, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland and Hungary - in the 12-team tournament to match their best performance in the Cyprus Cup which came in the 2009 edition. This tournament is part of Banyana’s preparations in a busy year that will see them play in the qualifiers of the Africa Women Cup of Nations (Awcon) and then the tournament itself later this year. The top three teams book a ticket to France to represent Africa in the World Cup next year.
Despite Banyana finishing sixth, Thembi Kgatlana was voted as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
“The challenge was to improve from our performance against Sweden which was our last match before coming to Cyprus,” Ellis said. “We improved tremendously. We worked a lot on our tactical side of things and finishing. In that essence, I think we have improved a lot. Yes we wanted better results but we sort of did get them to an extent.
The most important thing was to see progress, which is what I saw. We constantly made changes in our team to give every player a run. But it didn’t matter who we put on the park. That’s the growth in this team that I am proud of.”
Ellis continued: “We played all the players and they did well. This tournament showed us that we don’t have a team but we have a squad and on any given day we can play against anyone. The players repaid the faith we put in them by showing us that regardless of who you play, their performance said ‘coach it doesn’t matter who you play but we will go out there and make you proud’.
“When I looked at them after the game against Belgium (the fifth place play-off), they were crying and it shows how much it means to the players. That’s what we want. They’ve played with passion and heart. We can only grow from here. But we need to play against such opposition to get ready for the Awcon qualifiers and the Awcon.”
Banyana will face the winner between Swaziland and Lesotho in the second round of the Awcon qualifiers in June with a ticket to Ghana up for grabs. Ellis will continue to fine-tune her team before that match. The bigger picture is at least getting a bronze medal in Ghana to be one of three African representatives in the global showpiece. Part of fine-tuning the team saw Ellis field Noko Matlou in her old position upfront.
“We are trying different things,” Ellis said. “We spoke to her before. She really did what we asked of he as a striker, to hold the ball and make the team play. She scored against Belgium. She showed that she is very versatile, playing well at centreback and upfront. Noko is a true professional. She didn’t play in the first two games and she easily slotted into the team in the third match.
She is an excellent striker and excellent defender. You love players who are prepared to play anywhere to help the team. As South Africans we should really be happy with players like that.”