WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Sweden produced a drab opening Women's World Cup performance on a gloomy night of mist and rain but managed to pull off a surprisingly difficult 2-1 victory to fend off plucky South Africa on Sunday.
South Africa caught Sweden off guard when Hildah Magaia scored in the 48th minute to take a shocking lead in the Group G match while threatening to notch the first major upset of the tournament.
Sweden had dominated a scoreless first half with 71% of possession and eight corners, but there was something lacking in its performance. Sweden looked lost after halftime and South Africa took advantage when Thembi Kgatlana dropped behind the defense and struck a high shot that keeper Zecira Musovic could only parry.
Magaia hurled herself forward with such force she was carried into the goal along with the ball. She rolled into the back of the net and layed there for several moments and was eventually substituted.
Sweden, which hadn’t lost a World Cup group match since 2003 and was expected to ease past 54th-ranked South Africa, suddenly seemed in danger.
But Sweden got on the board in the 64th minute with Fridolina Rolfo’s equalizer. Amanda Ilestedt then produced a perfect header from a corner with a minute left in regulation to help Sweden escape at the end of an unimpressive opening game effort.
The Banyana Banyana had danced from their team bus into the dressing room before the match, and looked likely to dance their way out before Ilestedt’s late goal briefly suppressed that celebration. After time to reflect on its performance, South Africa was satisfied with its performance.
“They came off a bit disappointed because of the loss because we thought we could have got a better result,” South Africa coach Desiree Ellis said. “But the way we played, we are very proud of that. We stuck to the game plan. We knew we’d get goals on transition. We knew we'd get chances.
“We scored and that is our that is one of our strengths," Ellis continued. "We have the speed up front, we have the skill upfront, we have this skill within the midfield and defensively we were really, really good and that is a big plus for us.”
South Africa adopted a new uniform of all black on Friday which contrasted with Sweden’s bright yellow. There was also a contrast of styles as Sweden built painstakingly from the back and was at its best at set pieces, while South Africa excelled on the counter-attack.
Often it caught Sweden napping with quick touches which sped the ball forward and behind the defense. Magaia's goal was a rich return for a team that refused to be intimidated by Sweden’s record and reputation — the Blagult are ranked third in the world.
It was South Africa that often looked sharpest and did more to lift the gloom of the evening.
Rain began falling in Wellington about two hours before kickoff and continued steadily, sometimes heavily into the match, glazing the pitch and making it slick in places. The wind, usually omnipresent in Wellington and a factor when Spain met Costa Rica on Friday, was absent and the harbor which flanks Wellington Regional Stadium on its eastern side, was glassy.
Without wind, Sweden was able to use the long ball effectively in the first half.
In the second, having been shaken into action by the possibility of its first loss in a World Cup group match in 20 years, Sweden became more precise and Ilestedt’s goal resulted from set piece solidity and clinical execution.
“We are really positive about the win, really happy,” Ilestedt said. “They scored the first goal, and to win this kind of a game and score two goals, it’s something we will bring further on. Obviously we were really happy about the three points. That’s what matters right now.”
Ilestedt’s 89th minute goal, a masterpiece at the end of a match in which Sweden seldom sparkled.
The ball was swept in for Sweden’s 11th corner of the match and Ilestedt was perfectly placed to head the ball down and into the net. It was a cruel blow to South Africa who played with great courage and shocked Sweden with the first goal of the match. But it put Sweden’s campaign on track, giving them an expected early lead in Group G.
WHY IT MATTERS
Sweden hadn’t lost a World Cup group match since 2003 and for a moment on Friday that record looked in jeopardy. But goals from Rolfo and Ilestedt, the second with moments left, allowed Sweden to grab an expected Group G win. It wasn’t impressive and Sweden will have to improve.
Italy and Argentina, the other teams in Group G, received a warning not to overlook South Africa after its plucky performance.
Italy and Argentina meet in the next match in Group G in Auckland on Monday. Both will have watched and noted South Africa’s performance. The group suddenly looks tighter than expected.
South Africa plays Argentina in Dunedin on Friday and Sweden faces Italy in Wellington on Saturday.