South Africa into the last 16 after win over Italy at Women’s World Cup

South Africa's Thembi Kgatlana Women's World Cup

South Africa’s Thembi Kgatlana celebrates after an own-goal scored by Italy’s Benedetta Orsi, far right, during the Women’s World Cup Group G match between South Africa and Italy in Wellington, New Zealand, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand— Thembi Kgatlana scored early in stoppage time to give South Africa a 3-2 win over Italy on Wednesday and a spot in the knockout rounds of a Fifa Women’s World Cup for the first time.

On a night of high drama and low temperatures, Hildah Magaia scored in the 67th minute to put South Africa 2-1 ahead before Arianna Caruso equalized with her second goal of the match, briefly denting South African hopes.

A draw would have been enough to put eighth-ranked Italy into the knockout rounds.

Instead, Kgatlana’s clincher meant it’ll be South Africa playing Netherlands in a round of 16 match on Sunday. Sweden finished atop Group G after beating Argentina 1-0 and will next play the defending champion U.S. team.

The winning goal came two minutes into stoppage time and as part of a series of extraordinary moments as South Africa led and seemed to be going through, Italy equalized and looked likely to advance, then South Africa scored again.

At last Jermaine Seoposenwe went forward and squared the ball to midfielder Magaia who, rather than shooting, crossed to Kgatlana to strike the ball home.

“They call me the breadwinner so without the breadwinner there’s no bread,” said Magaia, who was voted player of the match. “I had to provide the bread for the nation.

“This really means a lot, especially knowing that we were so close to going home. It is an emotional one.”

South Africa's Wendy Shongwe WOmen's World Cup

South Africa’s Wendy Shongwe celebrates with the national flag after the Women’s World Cup Group G match between South Africa and Italy in Wellington, New Zealand, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

The tension continued as stoppage time exceeded 11 minutes, and then it was over. Some South African players danced, many embraced. Others, Kgatlana among them, seemed too overwhelmed.

Italy players sat or fell where they were when the final whistle sounded.

South Africa’s extraordinary World Cup journey will continue. Before the tournament began they’d been locked in a pay dispute with the national federation. On the eve of the tournament, they got an assurance they’ll receive the minimum $30,000 FIFA has promised every World Cup player.

Reaching the round of 16 increases that significantly.

Jubilation on Wednesday overshadowed those issues, the difficulties and the doubts. The match itself had become a blur.

“I think there was a time on the line when we had five coaches and the captain giving direction, it was that tough,” South Africa coach Desiree Ellis said. “No-one gave us a chance today but we knew what we were capable of and they fought like warriors out there.”

Caruso’s 11th-minute penalty and Benedetta Orsi’s own goal earlier had combined to make it 1-1 in the first half in Wellington, where a southerly wind dropped temperatures close to freezing and reduced the crowd to around 10,000, mostly South Africans.

Karabo Dhlamini cut down Chiara Beccarri from behind on the edge of the area in the 11th, and Caruso sent her spot kick low and to the right of Kaylin Swart for her first World Cup goal.

Orsi mis-timed her no-look pass back to Fransesca Durante in the 32nd and the keeper’s attempt at a sliding stop came too late to prevent the ball heading straight into the Italian goal.

Robyn Moodaly hit the post with a searing right-foot shot in the 21st and the VAR ruled out another Italy penalty for a hand ball before halftime. Italy had 66% of possession and more chances in the half but South Africa had a majority among supporters who braved the weather.

Play in Group G reached a conclusion which had elements of a well-turned thriller, with the last two matches played concurrently and almost every possibility still in play. As South Africa and Italy began their last group match in front of a small crowd, Sweden and Argentina kicked off in Hamilton.

That created the possibility of over-lapping finishes with placings established after one match still being contingent on the other.

Sweden led the group before Wednesday’s games with six points and a goal differential of + 6; Italy was second with three points, Argentina and South Africa had one point each. That meant Sweden was definitely through to the round of 16, Italy had one foot in the knockout rounds and Argentina and South Africa both still could qualify with a win — depending on the outcomes.

But South Africa’s chances were only slight Wednesday

South Africa took its first World Cup point when it drew 2-2 with Argentina five days ago. It led that match before Argentina scored two quick goals to draw, and also led before going down 2-1 to Sweden.

South Africa already has made an indelible mark on the tournament. The players danced and sang before Wednesday’s match in their locker room and on the field as they warmed up. They gave their song full voice at the end to hail an historic moment for South African women’s sport.

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