Two penalty goals from forward Jennifer Hermoso, and a third from 20-year-old Lucia Garcia, were enough to ensure Spain didn’t suffer an opening game loss to World Cup newcomers South Africa after an early shock in Le Havre.
Prior to playing in their first ever Women’s World Cup match, South Africa coach Desiree Ellis stressed the seismic differences between the quality of their domestic football league and the standards on display in these finals.
However, just 25 minutes in Thembi Kgatlana pulled off a magnificent strike to give Banyana Banyana a shock lead against their Spanish opposition.
Unfortunately, a handball given against captain Janine van Wyk gifted Hermoso the chance to level the scores, before a VAR decision deemed South African full back Nothando Vilakazi to have followed through on her opponent after a clearance.
Hermoso dispatched again, before Garcia wrapped up the game with a pacy run in the closing moments, rounding goalkeeper Andile Dlamini and slotting home to make it three to Spain in the Stade Oceane.
The Spaniards had come into the game with the greater expectations on their shoulders, with a more developed domestic game and star striker Hermoso expected to shine.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps then, Spain did indeed dominate the opening ten minutes or so of the contest. Maria Leon, Spain’s central defender, fired a free kick from the edge of the box just over the top as the European nation continued to try and capitalise on their early control.
Crucially though – as South Africa had always targeted to do so – they kept the scoreline goalless.
That allowed the South African players to settle into the game and grow in confidence, before launching the first of their blistering counterattacks. Prior to kickoff, the raw athleticism of the South African players had been highlighted as their best weapon, and they demonstrated why to the highest degree.
Barrelling forwards at a blistering speed, those in bright yellow jerseys managed to fashion a chance before earning a free kick right on the edge of the Spanish box.
Full back Vilakazi stepped up and absolutely thundered an effort towards the top corner of Sandra Paños’ goal, and it looked set to strike the target but for a crucial header from Leon. From the resulting corner, Paños’ gloves were stung direct from the in-swinging delivery.
Spain had been warned of the dangers on the counterattack, and so it came as little surprise to see Kgatlana and her teammates bombing forwards once again not long later.
A heavy touch looked to have ended the chance, as Spanish defenders flooded back, but it was slipped through to Kgatlana on the edge of the box and after one touch inside she unleashed a stunning chipped effort at goal, perfectly gliding over the fingertips of Paños and into the far corner of the net.
It was an incredible strike, and an unbelievable way for Banyana Banyana to net their first ever goal, in their first ever game, at the Women’s World Cup.
Spain attempted to come back into the match, and still maintained more possession of the football, but after the goal the confidence was flowing with South Africa. Every time they got the ball, the African nation looked long to capitalise on their significant pace advantage, and every time they looked incredibly dangerous.
Kgatlana and her fellow strike partner Ode Fulutudilu repeatedly bullied the Spanish defenders and fashioned dangerous opportunities.
In the closing seconds of the first half, Spain almost fashioned an equaliser after a speculative effort from some way outside the box by full back Marta Corredera, whose looping effort required South African goalkeeper Dlamini – who isn’t the tallest figure in goal – to be aware but she saved well.
A double change at half time demonstrated the frustration and need for a different method from Spain, and once again in the second half they took complete control of the ball – but struggled to fashion the necessary final chance to level the scores.
South Africa nearly added a second when Fulutudilu nipped in with her great pace and burst towards the touchline, beating Leon. Getting a good cross in from the byline, some poor Spanish defending saw it through to Kgatlana but she could only direct it against the scrambling Paños.
Despite the scare, Jorge Vilda’s side continued to boss the ball about the pitch. However, they still had to rely on an intervention from the referee’s whistle before they could get back into the game.
Courtesy of the new rules over handball, South Africa captain van Wyk was penalised for a handball that Hermoso dispatched, sending Dlamini the wrong direction.
That sparked the Spanish revival, and moments later they thought they’d equalised when Montpellier midfielder Virginia Torrecilla outjumped the onrushing South African goalkeeper, but the linesman quickly and correctly flagged her for offside.
It didn’t take long to break the deadlock, though, and again the officials had a hand in it all. Vilakazi hooked clear a ball and, as she fell backwards, followed through with the clearance – catching her opponent high in the groin.
A nasty challenge, certainly, it didn’t look intentional but those officials in the VAR room felt it enough to warrant a check. Once the on-field referee had seen the footage too, there was another penalty to Spain and a second yellow to Vilakazi; the tournament’s first dismissal.
Dlamini guessed the right way this time but couldn’t stop Hermoso turning the score around and breaking South African spirits.
With tired legs and broken hearts, the South African defence struggled to contain Spain’s late resurgence, letting sprightly 20-year-old substitute Garcia break in behind. Knocking the ball past the onrushing Dlamini, the Athletic Bilbao star simply couldn’t miss and converted Spain’s third – perhaps flattering the Europeans on the scoreline.
Spain kept pushing until the final whistle, but couldn’t find any more. At the sound of full time, they knew they’d done enough to finish top of the group after the first round of matches – though that first half against South Africa will have left coach Vilda with some definite concerns.
For South Africa, they ultimately walked away from their first Women’s World Cup match empty-handed, but can hold their heads up high. It was an incredible, spirited performance and one that deserves the highest praise.
Ultimately, a mixture of unfortunate luck with decisions going against them in the box and a lower level of fitness (as to be expected given the disparity in domestic football between the two nations) proved just too much of a hurdle to overcome.
For debutants in this tournament, they showed exactly why South African women’s football deserves to be on the highest stage.