South African striker Thembi Kgatlana scored what will likely go down as one of the goals of the tournament in the 25th minute to put her team ahead in its first-ever World Cup match.
The current African Women’s Footballer of the Year uncorked a thunderbolt to the top right corner past the outstretched arms of Spanish keeper Sandra Panos.
The South Africans — who controlled the tempo for the first two-thirds of the match — should have gone another goal up halfway through the second half, but Kgatlana missed a simple tap-in off a cross.
Instead, Spain equalized in the 70th minute after defender Janine Van Wyk was called for a handball in the box.
Atletico Madrid’s Jennifer Hermoso, playing in her 70th match for Spain, calmly took the penalty to tie the game.
A few minutes later, South African defender Nothando Vilakazi was given her second yellow card for a studs-up tackle in the box, allowing Hermoso to score another penalty.
With one player down, South Africa gave up a third goal to Lucia Garcia, who skilfully evaded two defenders to plug the ball into an empty net.
Banyana Banyana — as the women’s team is known in South Africa — arrived in France as large underdogs, playing in their first Women’s World Cup.
The team has qualified for two consecutive Olympics, however, and is making strides.
Kgatlana is under contract with Beijing BG Phoenix in the Chinese Women’s Super League, and is hopeful the exposure in France will give more of her teammates opportunities overseas.
“I think the World Cup is the right platform to put Banyana on the map,” Kgatlana told FIFA.com “The impact is so huge, people are starting to notice us.”
South Africa is set to face tougher challenges against Group B opponent China next, while Spain will face Germany.
Germany vs. China
In the earlier Group B match on Saturday, Germany put away an upstart Chinese team 1-0 in Rennes.
Led by striker Yang Li, China created exciting chances in the first half against two-time Women’s World Cup winner Germany. Li couldn’t capitalize, however, missing on an open goal and then striking the post just before halftime.
Germany was kept in the match by the steady hands of goalkeeper Almuth Schult, making her 60th cap, before 19-year-old Giulia Gwinn found the back of the net with a thunderous strike from outside the box in the 66th minute.
China has twice hosted the Women’s World Cup, including the inaugural tournament in 1991, but has not reached the final since the penalty shootout loss to the U.S. in 1999.
Germany entered the tournament as third-favorites behind Team USA and host France, and last won the World Cup in 2007.
Norway faces Nigeria in Reims in the third Group B match on Saturday.