2019 Women's World Cup team previews: South Africa
South Africa will make its Women's World Cup debut in 2019, as Desiree Ellis' side are one of four first-timers this summer in France. South Africa faces an uphill battle in a group with traditional powers Germany and China and upstarts Spain. But qualification was a huge success for South Africa and a sign of progress regarding women's football in the country.
How they got here
South Africa qualified for France 2019, thanks to its second-place finish at the 2018 Africa Cup of Nations, which doubles as World Couple qualification in CAF. South Africa progressed to the AFCON tournament via a 7-0 aggregate win over Lesotho in the qualifiers last June and rode that momentum to win AFCON Group B ahead of Nigeria. After defeating Mali 2-0 in the semifinals, Banyana Banyana eventually succumbed to Nigeria in the final on penalties but settled for World Cup qualification as AFCON runners-up.
South Africa will lean on a defense led by veterans Janine Van Wyk (159 caps) and Noko Matlou (89 caps) that conceded only two goals in five games at the 2018 Africa Cup of Nations. While South Africa hasn't played at a World Cup before, the team did participate at the 2016 Olympics and performed admirably. The biggest takeaway from its 2016 appearance in Rio was how well its defense held up. South Africa gave up just three goals in three games in a tough group with Sweden, China and Brazil.
Money Stat: 159
This is the total caps for South Africa defender and captain Van Wyk, the most by a South African man or woman -- and the most caps earned by any woman from an African nation. The 32-year-old made her first appearance for South Africa all the way back in 2005 and appearing at a World Cup, will no doubt be a career highlight. South Africa's defense will be busy in Group B, and in Van Wyk, the team has a veteran presence it can lean on for leadership and experience.
Players to Watch
The attacking star for South Africa is Thembi Kgatlana, the 2018 African Women's Footballer of the Year. The 23-year-old, who plays her club football in China with Beijing BG Phoenix, topped the goal-scoring charts at the 2018 Africa Cup of Nations with five goals and will be the danger woman for Banyana Banyana this summer.
South Africa isn't expected to get out of the group stage, but if it is to surprise it will likely need to get something from its first game against Spain on June 8 in Le Havre. Getting to the World Cup was a long time coming for South Africa, and that opener against Spain will represent a crowning achievement for the nation in women's soccer.
"We have a group that has international experience from the [past two] Olympic Games and the African Women's Championships, and also previous Under-17 women's World Cups. We have a squad with well over 1,000 caps between them. I have full confidence in the squad that we have selected and I believe we will surprise many at the tournament." -- Ellis, when asked about her team after naming her provisional World Cup roster.
South Africa has already won by qualifying for the World Cup and anything it accomplishes this summer would be gravy. In a tough Group B, earning any points will be a tall task, but South Africa will try to keep the goals down and nick one or two themselves with bright light Kgatlana. South Africa likely won't be advancing out of the group stage, but expect the team to give a spirited defensive effort and make it difficult for one or two of its group rivals.