Women in sport's voice for equal recognition has grown louder in recent years. In most instances, the cries have fallen on deaf ears as women continue to play a distant second to men. But the Mares' significant win over South Africa's feared Banyana Banyana this week, could be the catalyst needed to accelerate a paradigm shift, writes MQONDISI DUBE
The Mares, the women’s national team, arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa on Sunday, amidst the strong smell of blood on the streets of the country’s economic hub.
South Africa, which has endured a difficult history, is going through a familiar, but disturbing phase, with foreign nationals being the targets of brutal xenophobic attacks.
Blood flowed on the streets of Gauteng, as the Mares arrived to gloomy scenes, with smoke billowing from virtually every corner of downtown Johannesburg.
They needed to be brave, as they had displayed in holding a difficult Banyana side to a 0-0 draw in Gaborone, under much more serene circumstances.
In Johannesburg, with the odds against the Mares on and off the pitch, they needed to muster all the courage to overcome their opponents, who were at this year World Cup.
Banyana are ranked way above the Mares, at number 49, compared to Botswana’s position of 152.
There is a huge gulf in class on paper, but the Mares tore the form book to shreds with scant respect for the world rankings.
They fought bravely throughout a trying 120 minutes at the Orlando Stadium, with goalkeeper, Sedilame Boseja, emerging as the woman-of-the-match, evidence of the rearguard action needed to pull-off the Houdini Act.
Boseja provided sufficient light to guide the team through a nervy penalty shoot-out, which ended with Botswana triumphing 3-2. Images of the female Zebras players dashing from the touchline in celebration, to embrace Boseja, dominated social media soon after, as the country soaked in a famous victory.
When the Mares left the Orlando Stadium, just like on the streets of Johannesburg, there was blood on the turf. Banyana had been conquered, in a first victory for Mares over South Africa in nine attempts.
For a change, Mares enjoyed far higher attention compared to their male counterparts, who are preparing for a preliminary World Cup qualifier against Malawi in Francistown on Saturday.
Worryingly, the excitement around the Mares was already dying down the moment they left Orlando Stadium.
There was eerie silence when the team crossed into Botswana on Wednesday, the day after state President, Mokgweetsi Masisi had hosted a dinner for the men’s team.
For slaying Banyana, the third best team in Africa, after Nigeria and Cameroon, the Mares team will pocket P1,000 or five 200 pula notes.
The Botswana Football Association, together with the Botswana National Olympic Committee (BNSC) and the Botswana National Sport Commission (BNSC), deserve praise for flying the team for a training camp in Slovakia.
The results are immediate, although the team has always shown signs of morphing into a great side.
But the persistent gender disparities are always at hand to threaten progress.
While fingers point at authorities for neglecting women in sport, the stereotypes have been reinforced across by all stakeholders.
Corporates have flocked to support the men’s team, with lucrative deals signed with BancABC and Orange for the Zebras in the recent past.
On one hand, the men’s league has enjoyed nearly P100million sponsorship from BTC in the last decade. On the other hand, the women’s league has had to feed from crumbs, and in some instances, the national competition suspended, or reduced to a regional tournament.
While men in the top tier play in lush green fields, their female counterparts are forced to chase the pigskin in sweltering heat and bare grounds at primary schools. Fans have been decidedly complicit. Granted the men’s product has been marketed as the most attractive, but fans shun even a high profile Olympic Games qualifier, where entrance is free of charge.
The Tuesday win is expected to accelerate interest in the women’s game, and change the mindset.
But without comprehensive foundation for the future, there is always the ever-present threat of the women’s game remaining stagnant.
The women might not have qualified yet, but their win is proof of how a brand can be born, sustained and passed on to generations, if properly nurtured.
The gauntlet has landed on every stakeholder’s doorstep, and the next game against Zambia at the end of the month, will prove if the excitement over the Banyana win, was just a flash in the pan.
The win was a statement to the authorities that a formidable league is a must, it was an unambiguous statement that fans should troop to the stadium to support women, and critical, that financial resources should be spread evenly to support football growth.
But cases of failed progress will always stand as a cruel reminder of what could happen, post the famous Banyana win.
The frenzy that accompanied the hosting of the 2017 World Youth Netball Cup, sadly, almost remained at the UB Sports Arena. It did not sufficiently penetrate the crucial publics, who matter to drive the game of netball forward.
Now Naletsana is fast becoming distant memory, at a time when the nation should be reaping the benefits of hosting the junior global tournament. Fingers will be crossed that, rather than a once-off achievement, the Mares win will have the latent effect, and spark a full-blown, lasting paradigm shift.