Banyana Banyana go up against Sweden at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on August 3, the day of our local elections. When the players take to the field, they will be underresourced and neglected – much like the rats-and-mice political parties struggling for our attention against the dominant players on election day.
It will be a feat if the national women’s soccer team get to their second consecutive Olympics at all. A month ago, coach Vera Pauw put out her begging bowl. Appealing to Fikile “Mr Razzmatazz” Mbalula to extend a financial lifeline to women’s soccer, she said: “My big call is to the minister of sport. Help us – not afterwards, not at an awards ceremony. Instead of awards, help us prepare.”
She said the team had already lost five weeks of preparation because of a lack of funds for a national camp.
Since then, football association Safa was reportedly due to give the team a few million rands to at least complete their preparations, and test their skills in friendly matches.
The team has soldiered on, clutching on to support from solo sponsor Sasol, which created a league in 2009 to nurture women’s football from club level upwards.
Despite disparities in funding and development compared with men’s soccer, Banyana have not performed badly. Ranked a few notches higher than Bafana, the team has produced superstar Portia Modise – the first African to score more than 100 international goals. She delivered a 41m wonder strike for Banyana in the 2012 Olympics before retiring last year.
Imagine how the quality of women’s soccer would improve if sporting bodies did not just pay lip service to equity; if they supported a proper professional league with sponsors and live broadcasts.
But from my narrow experience as a soccer mom, transformation and development need to begin at school level. My daughter, Ella, had the opportunity to learn soccer six years ago, but it was during a one-year family stay in the US, where girls’ soccer is taken seriously and is paying off, with the US women’s team the current World Cup champs.
In South Africa, girls’ soccer is an afterthought on most school calendars – if offered at all – and an also-ran at award ceremonies. Even when a school shows commitment, as is the case now where Ella, aged 14, plays defence for her high school’s only girls’ team, it is a battle to find competitive teams for matches.
But the girls press on with passion and gusto, just like the Banyana women who, at 6pm on election day, will give their all for their country.
Even if the powers that be fail them, there is time for us to get behind them.