No secret to building women’s soccer in Africa: Play more

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — No one deserved to see South Africa finally qualify for the Women’s World Cup more than Fran Hilton-Smith.

Take nothing away from the players and coaches, but Hilton-Smith has been the driving force behind women’s soccer in South Africa, and to an extent Africa, for more than 20 years.

Seeing Banyana Banyana make the final of the African championship in Ghana last month and clinch a place at next year’s World Cup in France for the first time was a “life-changing experience,” she said.

Because she’s been waiting and working for the moment for much of her life, ever since South Africa returned after apartheid ended in 1994.

“I was there, it was incredible. I’ve waited personally 24 years to qualify for the World Cup,” she said, describing the scenes in the locker room afterward. “Everyone was crying and celebrating.”

A former national team player and coach, Hilton-Smith is now head of women’s soccer in South Africa and the national association’s assistant technical director, both for men and women. She’s the only woman on the Confederation of African Football’s 14-member technical committee that drives the development of the entire game on the continent. She was Africa’s representative on a recent FIFA task force to revamp women’s soccer worldwide.

So, you can’t tell Hilton-Smith anything about women’s soccer in Africa. And few people are in a better position to explain why African teams have never shone at the World Cup. It’s been frustrating for Hilton-Smith, who’s been to just about every tournament since ‘94 working on FIFA’s technical team.

Nigeria, dominant in Africa and crowned African champion last weekend for the 11th time, has “brilliant players,” according to Hilton-Smith, many of them playing for clubs in Europe, and yet has made the World Cup quarterfinals once, nearly 20 years ago. That’s the best an African team has done.

The reason’s no secret, she said. African teams just don’t play enough.

“When I got to the World Cup, I realized that we had really good players in South Africa, in Africa,” Hilton-Smith said, “but then and still now the problem has been the lack of competition within Africa. And that has been and still is a major stumbling block.

“I’ve always sat there and thought, gosh we have better players than a lot of these players and we could do so well at the World Cup.”

Facilities are obviously important.

Hilton-Smith started an academy for girls in South Africa 13 years ago that now provides most of the players on the national squad.

She discovered Banyana captain and Houston Dash defender Janine van Wyk when she was 13 years old and playing for a boys team on the outskirts of Johannesburg — and guided the early part of her career, making sure she was one of the first to go to the academy. Van Wyk has now played more than 150 games for her country, more than any other South African, man or woman.

Africa certainly needs more high-level women coaches too.

Hilton-Smith made it her mission to help as many women coaches in South Africa as possible gain “A” licenses, Africa’s highest coaching qualification. The current South Africa coach, Desiree Ellis, was one of them. There are now 24 in South Africa with “A” licenses, but that’s more than the rest of Africa put together.

Ultimately, though, African teams desperately need more competitive games.

The women’s African championship is held every two years. But it’s the only tournament of any consequence in Africa. Between African Cups, “countries just pack up their women’s teams,” Hilton-Smith said, and she fears Africa’s other two teams going to the World Cup, Nigeria and Cameroon, will do that again.

Nigeria is a stark example. The best on the continent sometimes goes more than a year without playing any games at all. Zimbabwe qualified for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics but would have gone to Brazil without playing any preparation games if Hilton-Smith hadn’t hastily organized a match against South Africa. No surprise the Zimbabweans let in 15 goals in three games at the Olympics.

“If you don’t compete, you can’t compete. It’s that simple,” Hilton-Smith said. “You can’t compete with the rest of the world when you’re doing that.”

Compare World Cup champion United States and the big teams in Europe, who are “always playing, always competing at a high level,” Hilton-Smith said.

In Africa it’s difficult. You need money to organize more games, more tournaments and take teams travelling, and soccer in general in Africa is underfunded, let alone women’s soccer, which is still some way down the pecking order.

But Hilton-Smith is squeezing every last cent out of her tight budget to make sure Banyana Banyana does one thing above all before the World Cup in June: Play.

South Africa faces Sweden and Netherlands in January, is planning to go to the Cyprus Cup in March, and will hopefully confirm a game against the U.S. in May.

Banyana will need every minute of match practice after being pitted against two-time champion Germany, China and Spain in the World Cup draw on Saturday.

“Now we’ve got there we have to make sure we don’t just make up the numbers and we go there and make an impression,” Hilton-Smith said. “It’s not easy. It’s a huge stage with huge teams who play all the time.”

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