By Mark Etheridge
in Brazzaville, Congo
Banyana Banyana were roughly three minutes away from the perfect start to their African Games campaign here on Monday.
But a hotly debated penalty saw them singing the blues as they drew their opening football match 1-1 against Cameroon
This was always going to be coach Vera Pauw’s toughest task of the tournament as the physically imposing West Africans dwarfed the South Africans.
But it’s not always about size and the crisp passing of the South Africans showed immediately with good work down the right from Refiloe Jane setting up Leandra Smeda for a headed chance in the 13th minute.
Just minutes later the same combination caused Cameroon problems and Smeda’s acrobatic attempt wasn’t connected cleanly enough to cause the pink-clad keeper any problems.
The artificial turf was an extremely slow surface with the ball holding back once it bounced, making it hard for SA’s speedy front runners to time their through-runs to perfection.
The second half saw Cameroon pressing a whole lot harder and they caused the hard-working SA defence some anxious moments. But all the while captain Janine van Wyk kept a calm head on her slim shoulders and her and fellow defender Noko Motlou put their body on the line on countless occasions.
One of those saw Van Wyk pole-axed by a flailing forearm to the chest and there were a few nervous moments before the lion-hearted skipper got up to take her place in the last line.
But Banyana played their way back into the game and again it was the Jane-Smeda show that looked closest to cracking the Cameroon defence but the West Coast (Western Cape) striker ballooned the ball high and handsome off the bar.
The pressure had to tell though and finally it was, guess who, that found the key to Banyana’s first goal and it was Jane who slipped a super ball through to Smeda who needed no second invitation on this occasion and slotted calmly past the keeper in the 71st minute.
The vocal Cameroon supporters were stunned into momentary silence and to be honest it should have been permanent silence as Banyana blew at least three match-winning chances in quick succession, one of them when Amanda Dlamini’s looping free-kick struck the bar with the keeper beaten.
Three minutes from time and the Cameroon calypso beat was on song again as the referee saw fit to award a penalty from right out of the comic books as Motlou was adjudged to have brought down a Cameroon player in the box.
This despite manager and team video analyst Shilene Booysens’ digital footage clearly showing that Matlou had cleanly won the ball from under the feet of her opponent and the ball being metres away already before she took a tumble.
Keeper Andile Dlamini went the right way but was beaten by a low shot to her right and it was all square.
Both sides had their chances with Banyana looking particularly dangerous on the break but four minutes of added time failed to see it changing from 1-1.
Understandably both skipper Van Wyk and coach Pauw were frustrated, despite holding their fancied opponents.
‘We had a good first half, I thought but again it was our final touch that let us down and we just couldn’t get the ball into the net,’ said Van Wyk.
‘We’ve played them many times before and know their style… you have to move the ball on very quickly and avoid one-on-one contact as much as possible.
‘The penalty was clearly never a penalty though and it just seems that every time we come to play away in Africa this happens to us.’
Paul backed her skipper to the hilt. ‘Lets be honest it should have been 4-1 had we taken our chances, even with that “penalty”.
‘But being a small team that often counts against us in decisions like tonight… but I’m confident we’ll play them in the final here and lets see what happens then.’
Banyana’s next game is against Ghana on Thursday which wraps up the group stages with only three teams in this group and the women then have a five-day ‘rest’ period in which to further prepare.