Nigeria v South Africa: Olympic Games qualifier will be a 'battle', says Desiree Ellis

South Africa players celebrate with medals and the trophy after beating Morocco to win the 2022 Women's Africa Cup of Nations

South Africa coach Desiree Ellis has warned a "tough battle" awaits when her side face Nigeria in a heavyweight match in the final round of qualifiers for the women's football tournament at the 2024 Olympic Games.

Nigeria, the most successful side in Africa, host the reigning continental champions in Abuja on Friday, with the return leg in Pretoria four days later.

South Africa beat the Super Falcons en route to winning the Women's Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) title in 2022, and now the countries meet again for a ticket to Paris.

"It's like you are in the last round of a boxing match, a 12-round fight, where the winner succeeds and the loser goes home," Ellis said.

"Nigeria are still one of the best teams on the continent. We know how big the game is. We don't need to motivate the players, but we are excited.

"We need to get a positive result to take the pressure off us, coming home in the second leg."

Both countries reached the last 16 of the Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand last year, and Nigeria, at 36th in the world, are ranked 15 places above South Africa.

Banyana Banyana are aiming to qualify for the Games for the third time, after appearing in 2012 and 2016, while Nigeria are seeking a return to the Olympics for the first time since 2008.

After their maiden Women's Nations Cup triumph was followed by becoming the first senior South African side to reach the World Cup knockout stages, Ellis is keen for her group of players to keep achieving.

"Having missed out [on the Olympics] in 2020, won the Wafcon and gone to the last 16 of the World Cup, this is one of the boxes as a group we haven't ticked," Ellis added.

The winners of the tie will take the last spot in Group C in Paris, alongside Spain, Japan and Brazil.

Meanwhile, Zambia face Morocco for a place in Group B, where the victors will face the United States, Germany and Australia.

Gaining an advantage

A fan of Nigeria's Super Falcons wears a green and white wig and holds up a scarf while a fellow supporter plays a trumpet in the background
Ellis expects Nigeria's "passionate" fans will create a "hostile environment" in Abuja on Friday [Getty Images]

South Africa have made the final round of qualifying after beating DR Congo and Tanzania, in October and February respectively.

Ellis' side played both first legs away from home, drawing 1-1 against DR Congo and winning 3-0 against Tanzania, and believes it will be crucial to record another positive result in Nigeria.

"At the beginning it was a struggle because we had many players missing," she added.

"In February, against Tanzania I thought we were excellent away, which allowed us to make a couple of changes [in the second leg].

"In most matches we have played away we have achieved positive results, which has taken the pressure off."

Ellis, the reigning African Women's Coach of the Year, is also keen for South Africa fans to come out in force in the second leg in Pretoria next week.

"When we play away the stadiums are packed and we are playing against the 12th and 13th players," she explained.

"The [South African] people urged us to bring the games close to them and we have done that. Let us not be outnumbered in the stands.

"When the game is [in a] lull but the fans are singing, that lifts your spirit."

Returning stars - and experience

South Africa midfielder Refiloe Jane sits with her left leg raised in an empty dugout during the 2023 Women's World Cup

Ellis has been boosted by the return of captain and Sassuolo midfield dynamo Refiloe Jane, who picked up a knee injury in the World Cup group-stage match against Argentina last July.

Another player who has also recovered from injury is Mamelodi Sundowns defender Bambanani Mbane.

She returns to the national team for the first time since rolling an ankle in the team's historic 3-2 win over Italy at the World Cup in Wellington, which sealed their spot in the last 16.

However, Ellis will be without goalkeeper Andile Dlamini, who starred at Wafcon in Morocco two years ago, because of medical reasons.

"I was on my knees praying no-one gets injured because it happened to us in the past where we lost players at the last minute," Ellis said.

"We are without Andile, but I'm happy that we have Mbane, Refiloe Jane, Bongeka Gamede and Sibulele Holweni back.

"That warms my heart and is very encouraging because those are your more experienced players.

"Experience is going to help in this situation because it might be a hostile environment in Nigeria."

The game will also see two of the best players on the continent - South Africa forward Thembi Kgatlana and Nigerian counterpart Asisat Oshoala - go head-to-head.

Both are now plying their trade in the Americas, with Kgatlana at Mexican club Tigres UANL and Oshoala in her first season at new National Women's Soccer League franchise Bay FC.

"Nigeria have been serial winners and consistent for the last couple of years. For us to be put in the same bracket as them, we've got to be consistent in our game," added Ellis.

Lebogang Ramalepe, who won the Women's African Champions League with Sundowns last year, says the Banyana squad "know how important" the first leg in Abuja will be.

"It is a matter of we just must go there and give our best," said the defender.

The women's football tournament at the 2024 Olympic Games begins on 25 July, a day before the opening ceremony in Paris, with the final on 10 August.