AFCON: Africa’s newest rivalry kicks off again

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 10: The Nigerian Women's National Team lines up for the national anthem prior to the 2021 WNT Summer Series friendly at BBVA Stadium on June 10, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)

This afternoon one of the world’s greatest and most unheralded football rivalries will reignite as the Super Falcons of Nigeria take on Banyana Banyana of South Africa in Group C of the Women’s AFCON.

AFCON: Super Falcons dominance faltering

It’s hard to imagine how there is any kind of rivalry in African women’s football such as Nigeria’s dominance on the continent. The Super Falcons have won nine of 11 editions of the tournament with a now seemingly irrelevant Equatorial Guinea claiming the other two. But Nigeria’s complete dominance of the African continent is seemingly coming to an end as a number of countries are closing the gap with the West African giants, with South Africa leading the charge.

Four years ago, Tochukwu Oluehi guessed correctly, as she dove to her right-hand side to deny Linda Motlhalo and South Africa their first-ever Women’s Africa Cup of Nations title.

But this Nigeria side was anything but dominant. Previously in the group stage, the Super Falcons lost to their southern African counterparts. In the semi-finals, they needed penalties to squeeze past Cameroon before relying on penalties again to beat a Banyana Banyana side who had dominated the final.

AFCON: Recent history with Banyana Banyana

Since that final, the sides have only met once, last year when they met in the Aisha Buhari Cup final in Lagos. The tournament, the first of its kind, was an invitational event with the top sides in Africa playing in their first competition since the resumption of football post-pandemic. The two sides met in the final where South Africa hammered the hosts 4-2 after racing into a 3-0 half time lead.

Nigeria and South Africa have faced off 18 times since their first match up over 20 years ago, making it the most played fixture in African football history. In that time South Africa have only won three times, but two of those came in their most recent three fixtures, sandwiched around the penalty loss. It is that vulnerability that Nigeria have never previously shown which gives South Africans hope. Never before has Nigeria gone three games against African opponents without a win in 90 minutes.

Star of the Aisha Buhari Cup and 2018 WAFCON player of the tournament Thembi Kgatlana outlined the fact in an interview with Alasdair Howorth on the On The Whistle Podcast.

The Atletico Madrid forward said, “Without any hesitation they also know it’s going to be difficult to play South Africa because in 2.5 years we are the only team to have beat them twice. We’re not scared anymore because we have the experience that we need. So I think it’s going to be a good match for the tournament, a good match for Africa as a continent.”

Emergence of a new rival

South Africa’s rapid improvement over the last few years are down to a few factors. The first of which is the increasing pathways for players to go to Europe to play. In previous generations most of the team would have plied their trade in the amateur regional leagues of South Africa. Now Banyana Banyana can call upon players who have Atletico Madrid, Braga, AC Milan and Houston Dash on their CVs.

Nigeria on the other hand have always boasted a squad of players playing in the best leagues around the world. The Super Falcons are only bringing two locally based players to Morocco, less than any other nation competing.

Kgatlana highlighted this. “Over the years, they’ve always had players in Europe. They’ve exported a lot of players to go to Europe. Now we’re not on the same level as them, but we have a good number of our players playing in Europe. So it brings up the level of intensity and level of experience almost to the same level.”

The second factor in South Africa’s emergence as the favourites to dethrone Nigeria is professionalisation of football in South Africa. Not only has thre been increased investment in the national set-up, but the local scene has improved drastically. The introduction of national league three years ago brought about increased quality across the country, and as the league professionalises, the quality of players produced increased.

The fruits of that labour being a continental crown for Mamelodi Sundowns who won the inaugural Champions League in November, without conceding a goal.

The final piece of the puzzle for South Africa comes in the shape of head coach Desiree Ellis. The former Banyana Banyana coach took charge in 2016 and has slowly improved the side, year by year.

Final thoughts

As Kgatlana summarised, “She’s a local coach and she understands how South African football should be played. Knowing how to gel the local based players and the international players is something she has been able to do and I think at this point she’s chosen the best team that is going to be needed to get the results.”

Gone are the days where Nigeria can intimidate South Africa and other nations on the continent. With winning matches before a ball is kicked. But South Africa will not underestimate their rivals. They have been drawn in the same group with them for the second tournament in a row. The Super Falcons pack a team full of talent and an experienced head coach in American Randy Waldrum.

But for the first time, fans of women’s football in Africa can look forward to a tournament where Nigeria are not expected to stroll to victory. Instead, they go into their opening match against South Africa as equals.

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