If you’re counting down the moments until fulfilling the dream of a lifetime, it’s maybe no surprise that it doesn’t rush towards you. But, after 13 years of craving since making her South African debut, Janine van Wyk could afford to wait a few minutes, as she’s now starting a FIFA Women’s World Cup™ year which – at the fourth time of asking – won’t be tinged with frustration.
“When I looked at the clock there were 13 minutes left. It was probably the longest 13 minutes of my career. Every second felt like a year. When that final whistle blew I just fell to the ground and thought ‘oh my god, we did it’.”
And it has come not a moment too soon. “There have been so many times when we have tried and failed to qualify for the World Cup and each and every single year it gets closer to you retiring,” the 31-year-old explained to FIFA.com, having admitted before the CAF Africa Women’s Cup of Nations, which acted as France 2019 qualifiers, that she was sat in the last chance saloon.
“For me it was now or never and I’m really glad it came now. All the failures, all the setbacks, that we’ve been through in our careers and as a national team, it’s all been worth it.”
With Banyana Banyana having put “all our emotions, energy and everything” into getting over the line to reach their first global finals, thanks to a semi-final win over Mali, they came up short in taking the continental title back to South Africa. Defeat to Nigeria on penalties handed Van Wyk a third African silver medal, but the defender feels the plaudits they received bode well.
“The way we played, it’s as if we were [African champions] and many people said we should have been crowned champions for the way we displayed our football,” the defender said proudly, hoping that the world will see plenty more of them in full flight come June. “I just think we play entertaining football. We always put up a good fight, we have players that are very skilful.”
But they’ll be put to the test in Group B, having been drawn with some serious opponents in the shape of Germany, China PR and Spain. “We knew that whatever group we were going to be facing would be a competitive one for us. There is no easy group as everyone competing at the World Cup is a quality team.
“The teams in our group will probably see it as three points in the bag when they play South Africa but I feel African football has really raised its level.”
However, she is hoping to have some vocal support behind them in France. “Obviously people support underdogs, and we see ourselves as underdogs because it’s our first time, and people like to see them do well.”
They will also have the CAF African Women’s Player and Women’s Coach of the Year in the shape of Thembi Kgatlana and Desiree Ellis, who triumphed on 8 January. “We’ve already told Thembi that now she’s the African player she’s going to need to step it up for us and score more goals [laughs].”
Though having been named in the team of the tournament herself, Van Wyk comes with plenty of pedigree, not to mention her 160 international caps. It’s a tally that sees her as Africa’s most capped woman and third across the entire continent when you factor in the men, too.
That’s not enough for some, though! “I have a lot of people telling me to just keep going: ‘Get to 200; get to 300!’ [laughs]. After the World Cup I could hang up my boots and say I’m done with international football, but the passion always drives you to go and do more. But we’ll see how things play out.”
With the first round of warm-ups coming against the Netherlands and Sweden, and hopefully the pinnacle of a career not far down the road, that is certainly a conversation for another day.
Van Wyk on her Group B rivals
- Germany: “We know the Germans are a really tough opponent, and probably one of the favourites as well.”
- China: “We’ve faced China at the Olympics and although they beat us 2-0, we know we are able to compete.”
- Spain: “They knock the ball around just like the men do, like Barcelona do, but I feel we are almost on the same level as they are in terms of technical ability and they are not very tall players, so I feel we can compete against them.”