South Africa in only their second-ever Women’s World Cup are emerging as a real dark horse thanks to their unbelievable spirit to fight through the group stage and secure their first-ever qualification to the knockouts. They face a near-impossible task in the round of 16 taking on favourites the Netherlands but if there is anyone who can pull of an upset, it’s them. The current champions of the African continent entered the tournament without ever having won a game and only scored a solitary World Cup goal are now heading to the round of sixteen with a victory under their belt and 6 goals scored in 3 games.
Their start to the tournament was mired in bad luck as despite some fantastic performances they were dealt a harsh loss and a devastating draw in their opening two games as the side searched for their first-ever win at a WWC. Sweden beat them 2-1 in the opener thanks to a 90th minute header off a corner to rob the side of a point. In their second game, they blew a 2-0 lead as Argentina clawed back with some truly remarkable goals to force a 2-2 draw. The team were devastated after this result but showed their character as they were deserving of a spot in the knockouts at this point. In their final group stage game, they conceded a penalty and went down 1-0 after just ten minutes but fought back to take the lead and eventually the victory thanks to a 92nd-minute winner to make history for their country in a dramatic 3-2 win.
From my vantage point, South African vice-captain Thembi Kgatlana is easily one of the players of the tournament for the monumental impact she has had on her squad and their path to the knockouts. For context, she suffered a brutal Achilles injury that sidelined her for 10 months and only played about a month of club football at Racing Louisville before the WWC. She revealed in a post-match presser that she suffered three family losses in the week leading up to the tournament and almost dropped out of the competition. She remained to make history and she has. She scored the winning goal in the 92nd minute of their final group game to guide South Africa to their first-ever win at a Women’s World Cup and the victory guaranteed their first-ever appearance in the round of sixteen. Going back, she scored one and provided an assist in their 2-2 draw with Argentina and she drove the move and forced the deflection setting up their first tournament goal against Sweden. Her impact is undeniable and she is the heart of this Banyana Banyana squad. Kgatlana has been filling in as captain since Refiloe Jane got stretchered off against Argentina, the former AC Milan Women’s midfielder sat out the crucial final group game as a result which shows the mental strength of Kgatlana to deliver the win under such strenuous circumstances.
Off the pitch, their coach Desiree Ellis has been the driving force for this historic side who lifted their first major piece of silverware last year taking the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) title in a 2-1 win over Morocco in the final in Rabat. The former footballer is a trailblazer as the only female coach of an African team at the WWC. She permanently took charge of the team in 2018 and has since led them to their first-ever WWC in 2019 followed by the WAFCON trophy in 2022 and now their first-ever win and knockouts appearance at the 2023 WWC.
As a preview for the upcoming showdown with the Netherlands, South Africa have demonstrated they are mentality monsters having lost, lost a lead and fought past the ninety minutes to get their first-ever win. This is a team that will not give up and who keep being underestimated. Their pressing is their biggest asset as they keep forcing their opponents to make mistakes in their own half, they know how to force errors and keep teams nervous and unable to settle into the game. It will be a tough game for the Banyana Banyana but they will come out swinging and just might knock out the favourites.