Coach Shadreck Mlauzi created history when he qualified with Zimbabwe's Mighty Warriors – the first-ever time a football team from the country has qualified to perform on the global stage. For South Africa, Rio 2016 will be a back-to-back appearance at the Olympics.
Zim take their chances
Zimbabwe's path to Rio was a real roller-coaster ride as they twice won on the away goals rule and benefited from an unexpected withdrawal from Côte d'Ivoire. After receiving a bye into the second round the Mighty Warriors faced Zambia and advanced to the next round courtesy of a 1-0 victory at home after the two-legged tie ended 2-2 on aggregate. In the third round the Zimbabweans failed to travel to Abidjan for the first leg and the match was awarded 3-0 to the home side. Initially, it was said that the west Africans had progressed and the return leg was cancelled, but this was overturned and surprisingly Côte d'Ivoire did not pitch for the second match, prompting Zimbabwe to go through.
In the final round of qualifying, the Mighty Warriors faced Cameroon, who had been one of the continent's two representatives in London. Zimbabwe lost the first leg in Yaounde 2-1, but turned the table at home in Harare, winning through Rudo Neshamba's eighth minute strike. The forward had earlier already scored her side's solitary goal in Cameroon.
The victory sparked huge celebrations throughout the country, with the government promising the players bonuses and organising an open top bus parade around Harare. “Right from day one, we stressed that we should dream big, so everything has been about the dream and I am happy that at the end of the day we have lived that dream,” said Mlauzi, who only took over the side ahead of the matches against Cameroon.
Neshamba, who shed tears of joy after the victory, said that she found it difficult to express her emotions. “This is what many teams have long dreamed of, but never achieved. This means so much to the team and our supporters.” Not to be outdone, the country's minister of Sports and Recreation Makhosini Hlongwane, issued a flowery statement. "The drought of happiness is gone. Today we say death to mediocrity. Football has reinvented happiness for us all as Zimbabweans,” it read and went on to promise the team support for their trip to Rio.
If Zimbabwe's path to Rio was paved with obstacles, South Africa's was much smoother. Banyana Banyana, who agonisingly missed out on a place at this year's FIFA Women's World Cup™ after losing against Côte d'Ivoire in the play-offs at the African Women's Championships, won both legs against Gabon and Kenya before facing one of the power-houses of African women's football, Equatorial Guinea.
The west Africans, who knocked out the nine-time African champions and three-time Olympic participants Nigeria in the second round, held South Africa to a goalless draw in the first leg away from home. They were stunned though in Bata as Jermaine Seoposenwe scored the only goal of the match on the hour, sending South Africa through.
The side's captain Janine van Wyk told FIFA.com that the second half in Bata felt like a whole match. “It just went on and was really long. We defended like crazy, but then when the final whistle went, we all fell to the ground. It was a tremendous feeling, especially of relief and that all our hard work had paid off.
“We felt like we were at the top of the world and just happy that we did not again have to go through the feeling we had after failing to qualify for the World Cup. Now we want to do well at the Olympics and get out of the group stage. I am very proud that we had the perseverance and motivation to bounce back after two unsuccessful tournaments.”
Work and experience
South African Technical Director of Women's football, Fran Hilton-Smith, added that qualifying for Rio meant everything to South African women's football. “After failing in our attempts to qualify for Canada, we had to regroup and focus on the Olympics.”
Hilton-Smith paid a tribute to neighbours Zimbabwe. “Them qualifying is massive for women's football in our region. They are a feisty team that has no financial support. I did a FIFA coaching course there in December and they are so fired up and committed. I am really proud of the Zimbabwe ladies, who we have very close ties with!”
South Africa lost two and drew one of their group matches in London. “But we will definitely be far more prepared this time around. Most of our players were in London and experienced world football. Some were also in the U-17 World Cup team that went to Trinidad and Tobago in 2010. Also, we hope to play some powerhouses like France, Germany, USA to get a sense if where we are at and where we need to be.”