By Gary Lemke in Rio
First, the harsh reality. Banyana Banyana are out of contention for the knockout stages at Rio 2016 after suffering a 2-0 defeat to China at the Olympic stadium on Saturday night.
They now play Brazil in their final group game, which is for academic purposes only. A superb long-range strike in the 88th minute by Ruyin Tan, who caught Roxy Barker off her line, simply condemned Banyana to their fate as tired legs set in and added gloss to the scoreline.
However, now for the good news. In losing to 12th-ranked China – Banyana Banyana are 52nd – the South Africans turned in a considerably better team performance than they did in losing 1-0 to fifth-ranked Sweden a couple of days earlier.
They only tired in the last quarter of the game as China created several chances, most of which were dealt smartly by the impressive Barker between the sticks, who did enough to earn my nod as player of the match.
The only goal of the first half came in added time when Gu Yasha was fed a defence-splitting ball and a sliding Janine van Wyk was unable to block it this time, and the shot went to the left of Barker and she could only turn round to see it entering the net.
It was a cruel twist because 90 seconds earlier Van Wyk had rattled the bar at the other end, firstly seeing her ball from a free-kick inside the box – indirect as the Chinese defender had played the ball with her foot back to the keeper – rebound off the wall and then the fierce strike shake the timber.
Banyana Banyana could have, should have, been on the scoresheet themselves, as early as the first minute, when Jermaine Seoposenwe was put through on goal by Thembi Kgatlana but struck straight at the Chinese goalkeeper. Seoposenwe again squandered a golden chance in the 12th minute as Banyana Banyana defied the 40 places between the two teams on the Fifa world rankings.
Steadily though, China came back into the game and took control, enjoying 58 percent of the possession in the half as they grew into the game. In the 17th minute Barker was forced to go to ground to save and in the 36th minute China had a wonderful chance when first Van Wyk’s strong intervention led to a corner, before Barker made a fine reflex save from the resulting kick.
In the 42nd minute China again had a chance but squandered it, before those 90 seconds of mayhem just before the end of the half.
The second half saw China press forward more in search of goals that would boost their goal difference following their 3-0 opening reverse to Brazil, but an inspired Barker, helped by committed defending by Van Wyk, kept the scoreline down.
Banyana’s presence at these Olympics had been criticised by many skeptics, but in two matches against countries ranked at least 40 places above them, they might have been beaten but they have certainly not been unbowed. Stephanie Malherbe in midfield, Barker, Van Wyk, a lively Kgatlana down the flank and the hard-working Seoposenwe all put in good shifts at the Olympic stadium but it wasn’t enough to earn them their first goal, or point, of the competition.