WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Player of the match Hildah Magaia called the moment “life-changing.” Coach Desiree Ellis flagged something deeper, though, after South Africa beat Italy 3-2 Wednesday to qualify for the round of 16 at a Women’s World Cup for the first time.
South Africa had to beat eighth-ranked Italy to progress. A draw would have been enough to take Italy through. And in a turbulent final 20 minutes, both teams stood on the brink of qualifying.
The halftime score was 1-1 after Arianna Caruso’s penalty and Benedetta Orsi’s own goal. Magaia scored to put South Africa ahead 2-1 and left them on the brink of history, before Caruso equalized from a Cristiana Girelli corner.
At last, in the second minute of stoppage time, Magaia provided the assist for Themba Kgatlana’s match-winner and South Africa was through in a moment of huge significance for women’s sport in their country.
“They call me the breadwinner. So without the breadwinner, there’s no bread,” Magaia said. “I had to provide the bread for the nation.”
“This really means a lot,” she added, “especially knowing that we were so close to going home. It is an emotional one.”
Magaia’s comment carried literal force. In advancing to the last 16, each South Africa player will take home at least $60,000, a life-altering sum. Magaia said she now will be able to properly care for her mother.
A dispute over pay that clouded South Africa’s preparation and only was resolved on the eve of the world tournament, now is well in the background, one of many trials the team had to overcome to get to the World Cup.
All of that struggle was reflected in their jubilation at fulltime. As the second half seesawed they threw everything into a last bid for victory
“I think there was a time on the line when we had five coaches and the captain giving direction, it was that tough,” Ellis, the veteran coach, said. “We knew it was going to be a tough game but we knew what we were capable of.
“The girls are just freaking amazing. I mean I speak through every challenge they faced in the past,” she added. “We know that no-one gave us a chance today but we knew what we were capable of and they fought like warriors out there.”
South Africa qualified second out of Group G behind Sweden, which beat Argentina 2-0 in is last match Wednesday and will face the United States in the next round. The South Africans will face the Netherlands on Sunday.
In previous group matches, South Africa lost 2-1 to Sweden after leading 1-0 with a Magaia goal and drew 2-2 with Argentina after leading.
“I think this is for everyone back home,” Ellis said. “You know, people getting up in the early hours of the morning who were disappointed when we should have won against Argentina. This is for everyone.”
On a night of high drama and low temperatures, Caruso’s 11th-minute penalty and Orsi’s own goal kept it tight in the first half in Wellington, where a southerly wind dropped temperatures close to freezing and reduced the crowd to around 10,000, mostly South Africans.
Arianna Caruso’s penalty in the 11th was canceled out by an own goal in the 32nd. Magaia scored in the 67th to put South Africa ahead 2-1, but Caruso equalized and momentum swung back to Italy.
At last Jermaine Seoposenwe went forward and squared the ball to midfielder Magaia who, rather than shooting, crossed to Kgatlana to strike the ball home.
The tension continued as stoppage time exceeded 11 minutes, and then it was over. Some South African players danced, many embraced. Others, Kgatlana among them, seemed too overwhelmed.
Now South Africa can regroup and think how it will take its next step. Italy was disconsolate at the end, so close to progressing, but denied at the last moment.
“It’s a defeat which is hard to swallow but South Africa played better than us and deserved to win,” Italy coach Milena Bertolini said. “I believe that as far as Italian female soccer is concerned, I believe we do have a future. We have young players who have gained experience now and I believe that in future we have good prospects to improve and do better.”
AP Women’s World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/fifa-womens-world-cup
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