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Nigeria, South African team best women’s team in Africa now

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The Women’s Africa Cup of Nations final will produce a first-time winner on Saturday when South Africa meets hosts Morocco at the Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium in Rabat and signals a changing of the continental guard.

The unlikely line-up has raised questions about a new powerhouse in the women’s game on the continent, given Nigeria’s Super Falcons have to content themselves with a spot in the third-place playoff.

South Africa – five-time defeated finalists — are favourites, although Morocco, who had never reached the semifinals of the WAFCON before hosting the competition this time around, will be buoyed by the home support and will fear nothing after dispatching Nigeria in a controversial semi.

Ahead of the tournament, and particularly after South Africa defeated Nigeria in their opening group stage game — comfortably the standout attraction of the first round — there was anticipation that the two heavyweights would cross swords once again in the final.

The Super Falcons had entered this year’s tournament as overwhelming favourites — indeed, as 11-time winners, they embark on every WAFCON campaign with something approaching a divine right to victory — but there have been indications since the 2018 tournament that Banyana Banyana has closed the gap on their illustrious rivals.

Their meeting in the group was a rematch of the 2018 WAFCON final in Ghana, where South Africa neutralised Nigeria, despite being on the back foot for much of the contest, before succumbing on penalties.

Additionally, last September South Africa stunned the Super Falcons 4-2 in Lagos, Nigeria, to win the Aisha Buhari invitational tournament, capping a fine series for Banyana in which they also defeated Ghana 3-0.

The scoreline in this year’s group stage wasn’t quite as startling as the Buhari Cup success, but the victory provided further evidence that Banyana were at least equals — if not proof that they had the edge on the most successful team in the African women’s game.

South Africa coach Desiree Ellis also encouraged a shift in mindset. The Banyana team she played in, and coached earlier in her tenure, were comfortably considered underdogs ahead of meetings with the Falcons, but Ellis encouraged her players to see the group game as an opportunity to get one over on their rivals and set the tone for a tilt at the title.

“The first game of the tournament is always very important and what made the game bigger was that we played Nigeria,” she said at the time. “We knew we needed to get a good start that’d give us the confidence and the momentum.

“The players were magnificent… they executed the plan to the tee. This is a massive three points because now it sets the tone for the rest of the tournament for us.”

That said, South Africa has not breezed through the tournament or indeed looked like the complete package during their run to the final.

They required late goals from Nthabiseng Majiya and Linda Motlhalo to dispatch Botswana and Zambia respectively — the first victory achieved despite a particularly lacklustre display against a limited side — and have had to overcome the loss of Thembi Kgatlana after she ruptured an Achilles tendon in the derby with the Mares.

Kgatlana had entered the tournament as South Africa’s great hope to finally win the WAFCON, having won both the Golden Boot and the Golden Shoe at the previous edition to prove she can settle matches at the pinnacle of the continental game.

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Banyana weren’t the only side to have lost their talisman, with Zambia losing Barba Banda and Nigeria losing Asisat Oshoala, but South Africa’s more supple and versatile tactical approach allowed them to best absorb the loss of their star performer.

Ellis’s “the team is the star” approach also helped Banyana bounce back, and rally once again when the squad was hit with a COVID outbreak in camp ahead of the quarterfinal against Tunisia.

“Thembi is a big blow, but it is an opportunity for someone else to make the step up,” Ellis said, exuding calm, before the quarterfinal. “We selected the squad for every eventuality, but we didn’t expect this, and now the versatility has got to come through.”

Tactically, South Africa were one of three sides — along with Zambia and Morocco — praised by CAF’s Technical Study Group for the sophistication of their game and their desire to build the play methodically from their defence. The Super Falcons were conspicuous in their absence from the TSG praise.

Ellis, the architect of Bayana’s improvement over the last half-decade, deserves all of the plaudits that came her way after she won the Women’s Africa Coach of the Year award at the CAF Gala in Rabat on Thursday evening.

It was the South African tactician’s third triumph in the category — she’s the only person to win the award since it was introduced in 2018 — and is a testament to the nuanced, detailed and subtle work she’s undertaken with Banyana.

Stability helps, even if the coronavirus pandemic naturally slowed their post-World Cup progress and denied the side the chance to build on their previous growth at the postponed-and-then-cancelled 2020 WAFCON.

The run at the 2018 Nations Cup gave them the belief they could match Africa’s best, and some tough lessons were learned at the World Cup as they demonstrated their quality against Spain in particular, but perhaps lacked the experience or consistency to see out the contest.

That tournament, however, led to more of the squad getting contracts overseas, in stronger leagues, at bigger clubs, and an overall improvement in the standard of players in the team has followed.

It was imperative they qualified for the 2023 World Cup in order to sustain that momentum, which they did by reaching the semifinals. As such, Nigeria, SA, Zambia, and Morocco will feature in 2023 in Australia and New Zealand.

“We owe ourselves another chance after coming so close in 2018,” Ellis told journalists ahead of the final, as per RFI.

“It’s not just about the current group of players, it’s for players and coaches who were there in 2018 who came close and obviously, it’s for the people back home.”

She will be encouraged by the chances Banyana have created since losing Kgatlana, even if a lack of clinical finishing in the final third without the new US Louisville recruit — particularly against Tunisia — may yet cost them at the final hurdle.

Finally, there was a poignancy — and perhaps a parallel — to see Ellis stood alongside Senegal’s men’s head coach Aliou Cisse at the conclusion of the CAF awards ceremony, as both clutched the Coach of the Year prizes for the women and men’s categories respectively.

Cisse tasted Nations Cup final defeat as a player when Senegal were pipped by Cameroon in the 2002 final. After retirement, he was handed the reins of the national team at a particularly low ebb, but over the subsequent seven years, fostered a family environment, oversaw steady progression — notably World Cup qualification — and duly guided the Teranga Lions to success in the AFCON final earlier this year.

Cisse could never truly rectify his own failure to win the title as a player 20 years ago, but as a coach, he finally wrote history at the pinnacle of the African game.

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