Two African women’s football (soccer) teams–South Africa’s Banyana Banyana and Zimbabwe’s Mighty Warriors–are giving the sport a long-awaited boost with their recent appearances at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Despite the fact that both teams were eliminated before reaching the quarter finals, the athletes impressed spectators and grew their fanbase with their solid skills and determination. In fact, Banyana Banyana managed a draw in their last game against hosts Brazil in front of a sell-out crowd, while Zimbabwe’s team received lots of love and support from Brazilian spectators even as they lost their match against Germany.
Despite coming from a continent that currently places little investment into women’s football, Banyana Banyana earned themselves a spot in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and also in the 2012 London Olympic Games. Although they have played in the two most recent Olympics, they have yet to qualify for the World Cup. In order to qualify they would need to rack up victories playing in African tournaments, which are expensive to participate in. Whereas in the Olympics, every country has an opportunity to qualify, the World Cup requires that teams have the funds needed to participate in many costly tournaments.
Similarly, the Mighty Warriors have also faced financial challenges on their road to international recognition. During qualifying games against other African teams, they were affected by not having the required funds to attend some tournament games.
In Africa, as in much of the world, women’s football is largely ignored, compared to African men’s football. In order to gain popularity, women’s football teams and leagues require financial investment and support from sponsors and from their respective national football associations. Zimbabwe’s coach, Shadreck Mlauzi, has stated, “You know this gender discrepancy, that is there. The men’s team is offered more support than the women. So it is the same even back home. The support wasn’t really as great as we would expect.”
Now that Banyana Banyana has garnered international attention with their appearances at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, they are drawing the kind of news media and social media coverage that is needed in order to grow the sport. In preparation for the Rio Olympics, they played friendly matches against high-caliber teams such as the Netherlands, New Zealand, and, Olympic World Champions, USA. Although they were defeated in each game, simply competing against such well-respected teams for the first time has raised the competitive level of Banyana Banyana and of African women’s football at large. At the Rio Olympics, Banyana Banyana was defeated by China and Sweden before their draw against Brazil. As of June 2016, just before their Rio appearance at the Olympic games, FIFA ranked Banyana Banyana in 52nd place. Their highest ranking was 50th back in 2013. They are in 5th place in the African women’s football rankings.
The Mighty Warriors are looking to continue to improve their skills and learning from their Olympic experience. According to Mlauzi, “Back home we are the first team to qualify for such a major tournament since we [Zimbabwe] obtained our independence in 1980. It was really something of great significance, not just to the country but ourselves as individuals.”