African teams have thrice participated in the Women's Olympic Football Tournament and each time the continents' representatives have been Nigeria's Super Falcons. Ironically, the very year that the Mother Continent has been granted a second place at the 12-team finals, the west Africans failed to make it to London. Instead, South Africa and Cameroon will fly the continent's flag when the fifth Women's Olympic Football Tournament commences at the end of July.
For the South African team, known as Banyana Banyana (the girls), the trip is about more than pride or glory – it is a chance to boost women's football immensely in their home country. "We want to make a statement at the Olympics because in South Africa women’s football is not yet professional,” said coach Joseph Mkhonza. "By doing well, we will have a chance to improve the standing of women's football."
Drawn into a hard group with world champions Japan, Canada and ever-presents Sweden, Mkhonza is aware that his side will have to be at their best if they want to make it to the quarter-finals. "Football is a very unpredictable game, anything is possible. As long as you are going to work hard and try to make your statement, anything is possible. The countries that we’ve been drawn against at one stage were also first timers."
He says the team will draw inspiration from the example set last year at the FIFA Women's World Cup. "Everybody was talking about Germany and the USA, but in the end it was Japan who finished the tournament victorious. I am not saying that we will do the same at the Olympics, but there is nothing that should stop us from doing well."
Mkhonza, who started coaching women's football in 1992 after a career as a player with South African glamour club Kaizer Chiefs, as well as a brief spell with African Wanderers, said he and his players have been overwhelmed by the support they have received throughout the country. "People are coming to us and congratulating us and wishing us well, wanting to know what is happening with the team and telling us they will support us when we play in London."
The coach has had a good amount of time with his team, preparing the squad since last year as soon as qualification was secured. "We had several training camps and have played in international competitions to ensure that we get the best possible experience ahead of London. Before the actual competition starts, we will spend a few weeks in Germany."
An Olympic tattoo
This preparation time has experienced defender Janine van Wyk feeling good about how the team will do well in London. "Participating in the Olympics is already a boost, and we are certainly not thinking of coming home without having achieved anything else. I am fairly optimistic that we can do well."
Van Wyk, who is concentrating full-time on football at the moment to be at her best for the Olympics, said that playing at the highest level had always been a dream. To show just how serious a dream playing at the Olympics is, Van Wyk had the Olympic rings and the African continent tattooed on her arm. "This reminds me of my dream and the fact that I will not be only be playing for South Africa, but the whole continent," said the 24-year-old, who is one of the team's most-capped players with well over 70 international matches to her name.
But it was not always a smooth right for her. "As a white South African girl, I stood out when I wanted to play football and when I started playing serious football in the black areas, it was a bit of a strange feeling at first. There were not many white players and my parents used to worry," she said. "It also took a while for me to be fully accepted, but when all my team-mates realised I was serious, I became a full member of the team and I have not looked back since."
She says that as the team was getting closer to the Olympics, she became aware that her dream could become reality. "I am now really looking forward to playing in London and, thereafter, I am hoping to be able to play professional football," she said. "That is my next dream and my goal."