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Mares prepare for life after Bebeto

KABELO BORANABI
Long serving: Otlhagile
As more than a decade-long international career nears, the senior women national team selectors are forced to look for options. Long-serving team captain, Bonang Otlhagile was notably absent against Banyana Banyana on Tuesday, as a new central pair was tasked with shielding the Mares posts. But has the new-look defence passed the test, asks Mmegi Sport Correspondent, KABELO BORANABI

Retirement is inevitable for 34-year-old skipper, Bonang Otlhagile. She has more than a decade-long service in the senior team having made her debut as a teenager. ‘Bebeto’ as she is commonly known, started as an attacker but it was her versatility that helped her remain at the highest level of women’s football for long. At her early age, she presented several options in the attack she could as a central forward, a winger or an attacking midfielder.

She then dropped to a central midfield position as she approached her prime, but she then settled in a central defensive role. Since her debut, she has been ever-present in the team. On Tuesday afternoon, Otlhagile was watching from the stands in a tie used to prepare the team for the Africa Women Cup of Nations (AWCON) and the COSAFA Championships.

She received a late call up to the team as the coaches opted for the fresher legs. The current squad is largely made up of the 2019 Under-20 side that played at the senior COSAFA Women Championships. Nondi Mahlasela led the team in a high profile encounter against rivals, Banyana Banyana at the Wits Stadium as Nancy Baeletsi took her place alongside Masego Montsho in the heart of the defence. Baeletsi replaced Otlhagile in a back four that kept a record two clean sheets at the 2020 COSAFA Women Championships whilst conceding just three times.

The former Under-20 star has never really broken into the starting line up since her promotion.

Alongside Montsho, the pair is reminiscent of the time with the 2016 record league winning Township Rollers side and at the junior national teams.

Banyana is, however, their greatest test thus far,

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with a scary attack that included former CAF Women’s Player of the Year, Thembi Kgatlana.

As expected the visitors threw everything at the local girls from the first minute but the defence remained resolute, as the new-look partnership was happy to keep a clean sheet by half time in what was an intense opening stanza.

Six minutes into the second half, the home defence was breached. With pace, Kgatlana dropped a shoulder on Baeletsi and slotted past goalkeeper Sedilame Bosija. In the 56th minute, Gabriela Salgado beat full-back Veronica Mogotsi and sliced one to the far post as Montsho was late to close down.

The home side bagged a 2-0 victory on the day in what was a fair display of the new central defenders. Their next assignment is against Namibia in the first round of AWCON qualifiers scheduled for June. The team’s coach, Gaolethoo ‘Ronaldo’ Nkutlwisang lauded the girls for a brave fight after almost half a year without kicking the ball. She stressed the importance of her players being able to play multiple roles.

“As a coach you must have a long term plan, looking beyond what you have. You need to prepare for the future as early as you can. You should see potential gaps, it can be at right-back, midfield or any position.

 Then you would know how to fill those gaps in a way that gives the team continuity. I think they played very well, it was a very good game.

I think in the absence of the league we should have more friendly games,” she said. Ronaldo gave a senior debut to Mexican Girls’ exciting talent Segakolodi Didikunyane as the Mares’ reconstruction starts.



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