Injuries are South Africa’s biggest challenge to winning WAFCON

Thembi Kgatlana of South Africa looks on during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup.
Thembi Kgatlana of South Africa looks on during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup against Germany. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Injuries to Thembi Kgatlana and Jermaine Seoposenwe are real blows to South Africa and overshadow what should have been a celebration following their 1-0 victory over neighbours Botswana.

With the win, Banyana Banyana take the top spot and, for the first time in their history, a maximum haul of nine points in the group stage of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON).

Toothless Banyana Banyana

Before the match against their Southern African rivals, Desiree Ellis spoke on how the quick turnaround of games is impacting the team. Thanks to their first-game victory against Nigeria, Banyana have been able to rotate their squad more than any other team in the tournament.

Ellis made eight changes in their final group game against the Mares, trying to rest her players ahead of the quarterfinals. But two of those three players who had started every match were Seoposenwe and Kgatlana.

It is a reflection of the importance of the two. South Africa have a lot of depth and have flexed that as they won two games in the group stage. But the one area where they struggle for depth is up front.

Banyana Banyana, for all their excellent play, have become highly reliant on Kgatlana for goals over the last few years. The recent Racing Louisville signee scored in every match of the 2018 tournament aside from the final. And except for a 7-1 thrashing of Equatorial Guinea, she scored three of the four goals the losing finalists scored.

The reintroduction of Seoposenwe was meant to be the key piece in adding more goals to Ellis’ team. The Portugal-based forward hasn’t played for her national team in almost four years due to several factors, including COVID-19 restrictions and injury. She proved the difference in the first game of this year’s WAFCON when she broke the deadlock against Nigeria.

Possible replacements

If Banyana lose both players, it would be devastating for the team. Their next choice center-forward is Melinda Kgadiete. The experienced Mamelodi Sundowns striker has a strong aerial presence and a good foil for a goal scorer, but she hasn’t scored much for the national team.

The second choice is Nthabiseng Majiya. The 18-year-old is a much more severe goal threat than her club teammate. She even scored the only goal in the game against Botswana when she came off the bench for the injured Kgatlana.

Majiya was the top scorer and player of the season in the Women’s Super League in South Africa and undoubtedly has an extremely bright future. But she is still the unfinished product and cannot shoulder the sole burden of scoring goals in the tournament.

Injuries across the pitch

The injuries are not limited to the front line of Banyana Banyana either. Already absent from their final group game were winger Hildah Magaia and holding midfielder Refiloe Jane. The latter, in particular, will be a massive loss if she is unavailable for the knockout stage.

The AC Milan midfielder in her first two games was far and above every other midfielder in the tournament, with the possible exception of teammate Linda Motlhalo. No one in African football can dictate play and control the ball from deep as Jane does.

That lack of control was visible in the match against Botswana. In her post-match press conference, Ellis lamented her team’s inability to play between the lines into the feet of Kgatlana and Seoposenwe. Without Jane, the South Africans lose a huge asset and the lynchpin to the attractive brand of football they play.

Ellis claimed that Seoposenwe was brought off the pitch as a precaution and that she would be fine. But Kgatlana described her off-the-ball incident as “my achilleas popping.” She was unable to walk after the match and looks very likely to join her rival Asisat Oshoala in missing Africa’s biggest showpiece.

Most will view teams like Nigeria, Morocco and Cameroon as South Africa’s biggest obstacles in finally getting their hands on the WAFCON trophy that has eluded them for 24 years. But the biggest challenge facing Ellis and her team is the absence of her best players.

South Africa face Tunisia in the quarterfinals for a spot in next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

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