The first South African captain to win the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) hopes the team’s stunning success in Morocco can bring together a nation undergoing social hardships back home.
Banyana Banyana won 2-1 against the hosts in the Moroccan capital on Saturday to finally lift the trophy after previously losing four finals.
With South Africans facing regular power cuts for the past six weeks and record unemployment levels, captain Refiloe Jane says she hopes the football success can bring some relief.
“I would say to all the South Africans out there we hope that this will unite the nation,” the 29-year-old midfielder told BBC Sport Africa.
“We hope that this bought back smiles in people’s faces and brought back hope.
“There’s so many things happening in our country, so I think today was one of those days where we saw a united South Africa. We’re hoping going forward we’ll get more and more people supporting Banyana Banyana.”
Jane, who says she “cried her lungs out” at the final whistle, is one of three women who shared the captaincy between them in Morocco, with goalkeeper Andile Dlamini – who went over six hours without conceding – and veteran Janine van Wyk also assuming the roles.
Triumph dedicated to injured Kgatlana
Coach Desiree Ellis, who played in the country’s first women’s international in 1993 and was part of the side that lost the first of their four finals, in 2000, picked up Jane’s theme, with one particular South African in mind.
“This is for the fans back home; the fans who have been behind us, who have sent messages, and some didn’t even get a chance to watch it, so this is for them,” said the three-time African coach of the year.
“This is also for Thembi [Kgatlana]. We haven’t forgotten about you, Thembi, we did this for you as well. We said we were going to do it.
“You said to us when you got your injury, that the job is not done.”
Kgatlana, who starred at the last Wafcon tournament when finishing as both top scorer and best player, was denied the chance to atone for the 2018 final defeat when she was ruled out of the tournament with an Achilles injury in the group stages.
In the two games she did manage to play, she showed her blistering pace and sharp skills in the confidence-boosting opening 2-1 win over Nigeria and then when scoring in the 3-1 win against Burundi.
Midfielder Noxolo Cesane, meanwhile, hopes that the fact that South Africa finally managed to get over the line – after taking home silver medals in in 2000, 2008, 2012 and 2018 – can kick-start a new era of success for Banyana Banyana.
Unlike many of her team-mates – some of whom had played in the 2008 loss, such as veteran defender Noko Matlou – Cesane is unburdened by failure after winning the tournament at the very first attempt.
“This is the first step to start setting more targets, so that this can become a normal thing,” she told BBC Sport Africa.
A ‘beautiful atmosphere’ in Rabat
Whether the atmosphere in which the players played in will remain so vibrant remains to be seen, after the 53,000-seater Stade Prince Moulay Abdellah was packed out and lit up by flares throughout an absorbing final.
“We want to give thanks to the supporters, who came out in numbers,” AC Milan midfielder Jane added.
“When we played toward the game, we thought we were going to be lasered and there would be firecrackers, smoke and all those things. Even if they did that a little bit, it didn’t affect us so much, so we also want to give credit to the supporters of women’s football.
“At the end of the day, they came in numbers to support and it goes to show that Africa is on the rise. You know, we showed the world that Africa can do it.
“It was a beautiful atmosphere out there. They showed us love also, and we want to say thank you for that.”
Veteran Van Wyk, who played just the one game given her advancing years, also congratulated Morocco, saying the tournament they hosted was ‘probably the best Wafcon I’ve ever been to’.
Like Jane and many others in the team, the defender burst into tears at the final whistle in the 99th minutes – “probably the longest nine minutes of my career”- at the realisation of a “dream come true”.
South Africa fly home on Monday, with a huge celebration expected on Tuesday as the country celebrates its first senior international title since the men’s team were crowned African champions in 1996.
All the players, who spoke to South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa by Zoom on the day before the final, are now theoretically $24,000 richer, after being promised that amount should they lift the trophy.