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South Africa reaches last 16 of World Cup with players who work 9-5, train 7-9

The greatest story at the 2023 Women's World Cup belongs to South Africa after Banyana Banyana (The Girls), ranked 54th in the world, shocked 16th-ranked Italy, quarterfinalists back in 2019, to reach the Round of 16 for the first time ever.

South Africa entered the match having only just earned their first-ever World Cup point in a 2-2 draw with Argentina, but anything less than a victory over Italy would've condemned Banyana Banyana to group stage elimination.

The dream looked done and dusted in the 11th minute when Italy midfielder Arianna Caruso gave her side the lead from the penalty spot, but South Africa equalized in the 32nd minute after a disastrous mix-up between Italy defender Benedetta Orsi and goalkeeper Francesca Durante. 

Banyana Banyana entered dreamland when Hildah Magaia smashed home a left-footed effort in the 67th-minute, but Italy brought them crashing back to reality with another goal from Caruso with only 16 minutes to play.

Le Azzurre looked destined for the last 16 — captain Cristiana Girelli had a massive opportunity to put Italy up 3-2 and effectively end it in the 87th — but South Africa was given 11 minutes of stoppage time to find the necessary winner.

At 90+2', Magaia burst into the box through two defenders and unselfishly squared for Thembi Kgatlana to net the fairytale goal.

To understand the magnitude of what South Africa's just achieved, you also need to understand the team's story.

Exactly one month ago, the program was in total chaos. They qualified for the World Cup as Women's Africa Cup of Nations champions, but the buildup to Australia and New Zealand had been rocked by a dispute between the players and the South Africa Football Association (SAFA).

The team made international headlines on July 2 when they got waxed 5-0 in Johannesburg during their own World Cup send-off match. The caveat there was that the first team refused to play, so Banyana Banyana fielded a shadow team with no international experience, including one 13-year-old.

The squad only made it to the World Cup after billionaire businessman Patrice Motsepe stepped in to resolve the fallout over bonus payments and contracts for the tournament.

South Africa's team is mainly comprised of players who are based domestically in the Super League, which is only semi-professional. When players do attempt to play overseas, it's not uncommon for them to ask for public donations in order to pay for flights and accommodations.

"We still have a lot of players who go to work, then after work they have to come train or play. Sometimes they can't travel with their team on the weekend because they work," explained manager Desiree Ellis.

Being at the World Cup — as long as SAFA pays them what they're owed — is transformative for the entire squad. According to FIFA, each player should receive $30K for participating in the group stage, but that number jumps to $60K for reaching the Round of 16.

"That is life changing for us," said goalkeeper Kaylin Swart. "It's only numbers that we can dream of. Women's football in South Africa is not professional, so we don't get paid really. I work a full time job, I work 9-5 every day and train 7-9 at night. It is tough to be a footballer in South Africa. We do what we can for the love of the game and hopefully one day we will be professionalized.

"We have made history tonight. This is massive for us as a country, as a footballing nation. A lot of young girls can look at us now and see us as role models. They will see us as their heroes, hopefully that is the case. I think it is the fact we have grown so much as a nation and come so far. We are living our dream right now."

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Magaia, who scored South Africa's second and created the winner, knew exactly where the money was going: "The money really means I will be able to help my family. I will be able to do everything for my mother, because I am the one who is taking care of her — I am the bread winner. In my country and my team, they call me 'Bread Winner.' I think that rubs off on me. The coaches told me they need the bread so I provide the bread on the pitch as the bread winner."

Even the team's star players, like Racing Louisville's Kgatlana, have to balance the demands of playing with the adversities of everyday life.

"I'm so emotional," Kgatlana said after the match. "Over the last three weeks, I have lost three family members, I could have gone home, but I chose to stay with my girls because that's how much it means. I came back from a brutal injury and for me to be here and play for my country and represent every single girl who wanted to be here, to make history for South Africa, everyone deserves it. Every time I wear this jersey, it's not just for myself, it's for the 63 million people at home and all the others here in Wellington. I don't just represent myself."

You cannot overstate the impact this achievement will have on the women's game in South Africa, where young talents like 22-year-old Sibulele Holweni and 21-year-old Karabo Dhlamini weren't even allowed to play while growing up and where many squad members recount stories of usually playing with boys since girls teams are hard to find. 

"This is for everyone, and I said I want them to go to work smiling in their cars because we know the game started at 9 a.m.," said manager Ellis. "This is for all the coaches out there in the league that've played their part. This is for the coaches that've come before. This is for everybody involved in women's football because they have played their part. The players that've come before. I remember when we won WAFCON, Amanda Dlamini said to me 'It's personal,' and it is personal. This is for everyone that has put in but this is more so for the players who have really, really put the work in. Who have really, really worked so, so hard. 

"Yesterday I said to you about the 'Bread Winner,' and the 'Bread Winner' came through today for us. It shows the warriors that these players are. It shows the resilience that they have. Tonight I said 'We gave everything against Sweden. We gave everything against Argentina. But we've got to give more. We've got to give more. It's about how badly do you want this.' And they wanted it so, so bad."   

South Africa plays against the Netherlands in the Round of 16 on Saturday, Aug. 5, at 10 p.m. ET on FOX.

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