By Gary Lemke
Some 46 places separate them in the Fifa world rankings but at the end of their opening Group E match at the Olympic stadium in Rio, only one goal was the difference between Sweden and Banyana Banyana.
It was a scrambled 75th minute winner by defender Nilla Fischer after Roxy Barker had been unable to handle a cross that gave Sweden, ranked No6 in the world, a 1-0 victory against 52nd-ranked South Africa.
‘That one little mistake cost us. The more experienced teams will punish you when you make a little mistake. We should be going forward more, making more in our attacks and creating more chances, but these are the players we have got at the moment so I can’t ask for more than they are giving,’ said coach Vera Pauw afterwards.
In fairness, it was a deserved win for the Swedes who will be relieved that they were able to find the net after resolute defence had threatened to hold them at bay. Barker, so safe throughout the match, dealing with the crosses that came into her area, failed to hold on to a corner and then fumbled the subsequent cross and that was the scoreboard difference between the two sides.
The stats tell of a match largely dominated by the Scandinavians. They won the corner count 12-2, shots at goal 10-3 and shots on target 4-1. Yet, it was the one stat that counted – the 1-0 scoreline – that gave them the three points.
Four years ago, at London 2012, the two teams had met and Sweden came out of that 4-1 to the good. So, while disappointed at the result, Banyana Banyana will have reason to feel happy with a performance in a match in which they always threatened on the counter attack.
‘I don’t compare 2012 [Olympics] to 2016. This has been a journey going forward and there has been plenty hard work put in by everyone. We have had narrow defeats to the likes of the United States and the Netherlands and this result again shows that we’re getting closer.
‘I told the players at half-time that they were playing too many long balls into the space in the Swedish half. There was a lot of space there and I asked for us to get forward quicker so that we could capitalise on that.
‘This has been an incredible journey for us and the improvement we are showing is giving us a really good chance to start getting results against these higher-ranked sides. There is a tremendous energy in the squad and what we are really lacking is goal-scoring opportunities. But when you have a look at where we’ve come from to where we are now, I’m sure you can see the tremendous growth in our football. We showed it again today. We are getting closer,’ she said.
Sweden enjoyed large passages of possession and as early as the fifth minute could have been ahead as Sofia Jakobsson’s shot struck the bar. However, Banyana stuck to their guns and never lost shape as the Swedes tried, unsuccessfully, to break through the defence.
The Swedes tried to boss their opponents physically and twice the stretcher was called for as Mamello Makhabane first required attention in the 28th minute before striker Shiwe Nogwanya had to be carried off the field in the 37th minute, and replaced by Linda Motlhalo.
Banyana struggled to create chances and were reliant on Motlhalo surging forward on the counter, while Amanda Dlamini, making her 101st appearance, looked lively.
Captain Janine van Wyk marshalled her troops well and for long periods the Swedes were forced up blind alleys, Then, with just 15 minutes to go and the pattern of the game set, all it took was one mistake and at this level it was to prove too costly.
In the later Group E match hosts Brazil beat China 3-0 to go top of the standings on goal difference, and South Africa will need to get something out of their game against China to have any hope of progressing beyond the pool stages.
Banyana Banyana: Roxy Barker, Lebohang Ramalepe (Sanna Mollo, 82), Nothando Vilakazi, Noko Matlou, Janine van Wyk, Mammello Makhabane, Stephanie Malherbe, Amanda Dlamini, Shiwe Nogwanya (Linda Motlhalo, 37), Jermaine Seoposenwe, Refilio Jane.
Image by Wessel Oosthuizen, SASPA