Banyana Banyana's road to the World Cup in France starts now
South Africa's road to the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup will start on Wednesday when they play their opening match of the COSAFA Women's Championship, against Madagascar in Port Elizabeth.
Coach Desiree Ellis has assembled a full-strength squad as she uses the regional tournament as preparation for the 2018 Africa Women Cup of Nations [women's Afcon] in Ghana, which will get under way in November. The three best sides there will qualify for the global event in France next year.
Banyana Banyana have fallen agonizingly short of reaching the World Cup in the past and have yet to play on the main stage of the women's game. With a growing number of players at overseas clubs, this may be their best chance yet, and the build up to that potential qualification starts this week.
"This [COSAFA] tournament is a big opportunity for us," Ellis tells KweséESPN. "Coming so close to the [Africa Women Cup of Nations], it is a big bonus to have the players in camp for these weeks to allow for us to prepare properly."
The fact that fellow Women's Afcon qualifiers Zambia and Cameroon, the latter as a guest nation, will also be in Port Elizabeth is an excellent opportunity for Ellis and her technical team to scout their potential opposition ahead of the continental finals in two months.
"Having Cameroon has raised the level of the [COSAFA] competition and they will be the top-ranked team in the field," Ellis says.
"It gives us a real good chance to look at them and Zambia first-hand, to see where they are and what we are potentially up against in Ghana. That can be invaluable to us further down the line and something that we are very grateful for."
Despite Houston Dash trio Janine van Wyk, Thembi Kgatlana and Linda Motlhalo only arriving in Port Elizabeth on Tuesday, after the completion of their National Women's Soccer League season, Ellis has been pleased with the work put in during the preceding weeks.
Ellis adds: "It's gone well, we have been very lucky that we managed to have a fruitful camp in August and now this competition. We are also thankful for the decision to arrive early in Port Elizabeth because these conditions can be a bit different.
"It's been wet, it's been windy, and that is something that not all the teams will be used to, so having trained in these conditions for some time that could give us an edge."
Ellis will not rush her Dash trio into action, but says they will play an important role later on, adding that their experience abroad will be invaluable for the challenges that lie ahead throughout this year.
She is delighted too that Refiloe Jane and Rhoda Mulaudzi have managed to secure deals in Australia with Canberra United, saying: "It is fantastic for women's football in South Africa.
"When we played at the African Women's Championship in 2016, 80 or 90 percent of the Cameroon and Nigeria players were based overseas, and that experience showed. You need players competing at the highest level."
Banyana have been drawn in Group A this week with the Malagasy, Botswana, and Malawi, a pool they would expect to win, with only the top team securing a place in the semifinals.
But Ellis remains wary of their opponents and says they cannot take anything for granted.
"It is a cliché, but there are no easy games and you underestimate an opponent at your peril," she says. "But we have been busy analyzing the opposition to make sure we get our game-plan right.
"Having said that, if you concentrate too much on the opposition, you can forget about your own team and what your strengths are.
"But Madagascar are an enterprising team, Botswana know all about us having played them so often in the last few years. And Malawi have great players that have good overseas experience, so we need to plan and prepare for each team. It is important to start the tournament well on Wednesday."