As South Africa’s players danced around the pitch at full-time of their 3-2 victory over Italy, you got the sense that this is what the World Cup is all about. Three continents meet: an African side defeating a European side in Oceania. Unfamiliar underdogs defeating more established players thanks to cohesion, togetherness and faith. A five-goal thriller that ended with a deserved winner.
Italy were in a stronger position coming into this game and a draw would have seen them through. However, South Africa were dominant throughout the second half.
It was a mixture of chaos and control. After being on the back foot for most of the first half and trailing 1-0, South Africa were lucky when Italian centre-back Benedetta Orsi, under no pressure at all, tried to pass backwards to her goalkeeper and stroked the ball into her. own network.
But South Africa came out brilliantly at the start of the second half and twice took the lead, 2-1 and later 3-2 ahead. It was all the more impressive considering they were without their first-choice midfield partnership, with Kholosa Biyana suspended for picking up two yellow cards and captain Refiloe Jane injured.
“She was dressed like a coach and she could be a coach,” said Jane’s stand-in Thembi Kgatlana. “She taught us everything we wanted to do today. She plays in Italy (for Sassuolo) so she gave us the mentality of how Italians play and that really pushed us to win this game.”
South Africa’s Thembi Kgatlana: My Game in my Words
Her head coach Desiree Ellis agreed. “The impact Refiloe had on the bench as captain was huge,” she said. “We knew she had insight, we knew she knew the Italian team inside out and the information she gave us was invaluable.”
Ellis gave a good summary of his tactical approach after the match, which can be divided into three parts. First, they conserved their energy. Second, they adapted to cope with Italy’s midfield dominance. Third, they changed formation.
“We said we’re going to keep our best players on the court,” she began. “And we did that by not pressing all the time. They ran out of steam in the previous games and we had to make changes. These changes didn’t give us what we wanted, so we knew we needed a different strategy (today). We said, ‘Press for a moment, but don’t press the whole game’. And for a moment we pressed on and won the ball further up the field.”
It worked well and South Africa were able to continue – whereas in their previous two games they took the lead and then were pulled back.
Today was the opposite: in the first half they were sometimes overrun in the middle and struggled to cope with Italy’s midfield trickery.
“We had analyzed them and said to the midfield players (that) Italy were putting extra players in there – so we wanted our wingers to come narrowly because (otherwise) it was four against three,” explained Ellis. “We knew we were going to catch them on the counter, we just had to be solid behind it.”
They were pretty much solid, which was a collective effort. But going forward, South Africa had two main stars helping each other to their second and third goals. Striker Kgatlana led the line brilliantly, running relentlessly into the channels, while Hilda Magaia burst forward from midfield to provide two moments of brilliant composure: first a neat finish from Kgatlana’s pass, then returning the favor by playing an unselfish square ball when other may have shot.
Kgatlana’s winner came just after a significant formation change, marked by a piece of paper being passed around the side. “Sometimes you can’t get the message across, so you write it on a piece of paper,” Ellis said. “We changed formation, we went three at the back. We said: ‘It’s 2-2, there’s no point defending now, let’s just go for it’. We put numbers up, more numbers in the box, maybe we get a ricochet or whatever.”
But it was a nicer goal than that. Kgatlana was a deserved match-winner thanks to her effort and clever movement, and it was a particularly sweet moment for her considering she missed most of last year with a serious Achilles injury.
Attacking midfielder Magaia, meanwhile, was named player of the match. “In my country and in my team they call me ‘provider’,” she said afterwards. The trainers told me that they need the bread so I have to provide it and I took that with me. I went on the pitch and told myself I had to calm down.”
The composure was particularly striking – even when she scored the second goal, her lack of celebration was unusual, especially for a team that celebrates most goals more jubilantly than any other side in the competition.
The win also means South Africa’s players will see their prize winnings double to around $100,000 (£120,000). “It means I will be able to help my family, I will be able to do anything for my mother,” Magaia said. “I’m the one who takes care of her – I’m the breadwinner!”
But the real star was Ellis, whose approach earned South Africa its first ever World Cup win.
“You have to stay true to who you are,” she said afterward. “You have to make sure that when you make a decision, you stand by it. If it doesn’t work out, I’m a bad coach. If it works, it was a masterpiece. I take the good with the bad. But we trust the process. And that’s the most important thing.”
(Top photo: Maja Hitij – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)