In one of the most problematic confederations in women’s football, all three of CAF’s representatives at the World Cup have shown their inclusion goes far beyond tokenism. On a continent as in love with football as Europe or South America, women’s football should be thriving but a historical lack of support has kept growth slow. However, the sport has growth in spite of the relative neglect and while it’s not quite booming across the continent as it is in western Europe there is clear development and those who’ve qualified for the World Cup have shown what a little investment can do against nations with far more funding and resources.
The darlings of African women’s football, Nigeria travelled to France with what has been some of their best tournament preparation ever, the national side doing well to grow under coach Thomas Dennerby. Yet, with all the boxes ticked, the Super Falcons fell to a 3-0 defeat against Norway in Reims.
Firing out of the blocks from the off, the African champions could have taken an early lead but found themselves blunted before Norway found their own rhythm and hit them hard. Three goals down by half-time, the World Cup-ever presents would have been asking themselves how and why? Norway hadn’t oozed with panache or even good football, while it was their opposition who had pressed and looked to force the issue.
The second half saw things get worse for the Super Falcons and they lost Faith Michael to a knee injury early in the half and although her replacement, teenager Chidinma Okeke did well in place, her experience will surely be missed. Against a Norway team that’s had some quite serious issues in defence, the African nation failed to convert any of their chances, their good performance all they had to show for the loss.
Having debuted four years previous in Canada, the Indomitable Lionesses made their way to France as the rank outsiders in CAF. The third placed team at the African Women’s Cup of Nations, Cameroon’s presence is a nod to WAFU’s continuing dominance in Africa (despite the recent rise of COSAFA nations).
In their first match of the tournament against a defensively resolute Canada, Cameroon caused more than one nervous moment [for everyone], the fizzing, bubbling team utterly chaotic in all the best and worse ways. Despite theCanadians having the upper hand, the Indomitable Lionesses did well to keep them out until the dying seconds of the first half when they let Kadeisha Buchanan have a free run at a corner.
While the goal could have knocked Cameroon, they came out for the second half with the same plucky zest; when they could have faded late in the half, they failed to lose a step, pushing to the last. Whilst Canada’s finishing might not have been the best, there is no question Cameroon showed promise and as one of the “others” in women’s football in CAF, they remain an example of what could be achieved with more structure and sustained investment.
The young upstarts in Africa, Banyana Banyana have been reaping the rewards of investment from COSAFA and team sponsor, Sasol. South Africa’s rise hasn’t been an overnight phenomenon but a gradual development, the team forward-thinking in Africa and doing all they can to be successful in terms of preparation. With an adept coach in Desiree Ellis, Banyana Banyana came to France on the up and looking to impress on their debuts. And impress they did.
It took just 25 minutes for Thembi Kgatlana to open the scoring with a sublime strike. The clear underdogs against Spain, Banyana Banyana managed the game well and were cruising until the first of two contentious penalty decisions. If the ball had struck Janine Van Wyk’s arm in the same way in any other game before this summer, South Africa would have avoided punishment. The handball was an entirely accidental one but not the first maddening penalty to be awarded this tournament, the use of VAR only hammering home how unfit for purpose the new rule is.
Whilst a draw would have still be a very credible result the AWCON runners-up were dealt a body blow 13 minutes later when Nothando Vilakazi was shown a second yellow for a foul in the box as Spain were awarded a second penalty via VAR. The foul is one that has split fans and journalists down the middle yet, and hear me out here, it’s not a penalty. But slow it down, watch it frame by frame and it somehow becomes malicious and is no longer just a player trying to clear the ball whilst falling backwards.
Jenni Hermoso converted her second spot kick of the match with style and suddenly a goal and a player down, South Africa were caught cold and let a third in. There is a firm argument that Spain had been looking for a goal all game and Lucía García added a serious threat for La Roja, so too that South Africa would have been a little gassed at the end of the match. But there is no denying the two penalties had the biggest say, not just for how Jenni put them away but for the debate surrounding both.
Yet, just like the other two CAF representatives (if not more so), Banyana Banyana proved they’re right where they belong on the world stage.
With each three teams still having two games to play (and with the four top third-placed finishers progressing to the round of 16), there are still plenty of chances for all three to reach the knock-outs. So whilst the first round of fixtures for the African representatives might have been disappointing in terms of results, there is clear heart to be taken from the performances of each of the three CAF nations so far this World Cup.
France 2019 might not be the World Cup that sees an African team lift the trophy but with targeted investment and development, there is no reason that an CAF nation can’t lift the silverware one day.