It is almost 6,000 miles, as the crow flies, from Coventry to Rio de Janeiro. It is a journey that could take around 12 hours by plane, but is one that has taken four years for Banyana Banyana. South Africa faced Sweden in the opening game of the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016, as they did in their opening game of London 2012. This time though, a more slender defeat – 1-0 in Rio rather than 4-1 in Coventry - meant that Vera Pauw’s squad sensed progress had been made in the intervening four years.
“Looking at today’s performance, it was absolutely phenomenal from the team,” captain Janine van Wyk, who starred at London 2012, told FIFA.com. “We worked really hard.”
The Africans held their ground, firmly resisting the Swedes for long spells of the game. Indeed, they looked particularly dangerous on the counter-attack. One who caught the eye going forward was Refiloe Jane who, like van Wyk, played every one of her country’s games at London 2012.
“We’ve seen that we’ve grown as a team,” Jane said. “We’ve been able to build up from 2012 up to where we are now and so far, so good. Even though we lost, we can see that we’ve played very well as a team, it was just a minor mistake but going forward we are optimistic.”
That small error eventually cost Pauw’s side the match, as goalkeeper Roxanne Barker failed to claim under pressure, and Nilla Fischer poked home after a scramble in the South African box.
“When you play such a quality team they’re going to punish you for it,” van Wyk said. “It was a bit unfortunate, we don’t think that Sweden deserved the three points at all. If anything, it could’ve been a draw.”
That brazen confidence and positive attitude comes from a fortitude instilled by the strong will of coach Pauw.
“Her coaching philosophy is absolutely phenomenal and her mentality counts a lot,” van Wyk revealed. “In the changing room, on the field, off the field. We have grown as individuals and as a team because of her. I don’t think any other coach would have made this possible so it’s a huge credit to her.”
Banyana Banyana face China PR in their next Group E game, with the Asians soundly beaten by hosts Brazil. The second game for van Wyk, Jane and Co. offers a chance to shake up the group.
“In the coming games we’re looking forward to working as hard as we did,” Jane said. “It’s obvious but for us to win, we need to score.”
Van Wyk backed up her team-mate.
“I think it’s do-or-die for us in the next match,” the skipper said. “It’s our opportunity. We know that China are a really good team, but so are we – especially after our performance against Sweden. Hopefully, we’ll come out victorious and then take the next one as it comes.”
Another good performance, and one that bears the fruit of three points, would mean South Africa could begin to dream of making further short journeys around Brazil, rather than face a near 4,000-mile flight – back home to the mother continent.