Sunday, March 3, 2024

Falcons: War and the lame

A new era in women’s football in Africa has kicked in with the Banyana Banyana of South Africa taking home the WAFCON trophy last weekend. It was a pulsating match in which the South Africans showed that they were ready for the big moment. Five times the South Africans had reached the final and five times they had lost. On Saturday they were 6th time lucky as they battled the host, Morocco, to a standstill despite the roar of 45, 000 citizens that throatily cheered their girls. Super Falcons ranked 39th in the world placed 4th at the end of the tournament surrendering the consolation bronze to Zambia, one of the new super powers threatening to dominate African women’s football.

Since 1991 Nigeria’s Super Falcons have won the tournament nine exciting times, in a show of unstoppable, until now, dominance. South Africa is now the new queens of the pitch, keeping a 100% clean record throughout the competition. Their dramatic emergence was foretold when they beat Nigeria 4-2 during the Aisha Buhari tournament earlier in the year. They consolidated that victory during this tournament by beating the reigning champions, Nigeria by two goals to one. This is a significant shift in African women’s football power status and Nigeria must sit up and take note.

Banyana Banyana is made up largely of young players in their early 20s. The strong point of that team is the tenacity and courage that youthfulness offers them. Their coach Ms Desiree Ellis, a former captain of Banyana Banyana is a tested warrior in the round leather business and her strategies paid handsomely for the team. What this tournament ought to teach Nigeria is that the time for living on past glories is gone. Nine is a good record to hold on to our chests but if we do not go back to the drawing board to restrategise, inject fresh legs into the team, reassess our match strategies we will be left with only our golden past to coddle.

Without doubt our football at both the men’s and women’s levels are badly managed. Whatever progress we have managed to make in our football is largely because we have a surfeit of Nigerian talents playing football abroad. They get excellent coaching, excellent motivation and they play on good pitches. That is why we have had a bunch of talented male and female players to fall back on during major tournaments. If we had to depend on sourcing for players from our local leagues we would be next to nowhere.

During this recent tournament in Morocco the Super Falcons had to boycott training because of failure to pay their bonuses. This is a regular occurrence in both the men’s and women’s teams during major competitions. A few years ago the Super Falcons won the WAFCON in South Africa and because they were not paid their allowances they refused to leave their hotel rooms for a trip back to Nigeria. The entire world witnessed how success on the pitch turned out to be a public disgrace for the country.

At the 2016 WAFCON in Cameroun, the Super Falcons defeated the hosts by a lone goal and because their allowances were not paid they held on to the trophy like a baby to a prized toy. It took the intervention of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo for the girls to be paid. The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) reacted harshly by sacking the coach Ms Florence Omagbemi on the unproven allegation that it was the coach that instigated the players to revolt.

At the 2019 World Cup in France another disgraceful show was put on display by the girls for non-payment of their bonuses. The girls simply refused to vacate their hotel rooms. The NFF always looking for scapegoats instead of solutions accused the captain Desire Oparanozie of leading the revolt. She was stripped of the captain’s armband. For a long time she was treated like a pariah by the NFF while the team lost the service of this formidable warrior.

There is an African proverb that says, “the war that has a scheduled date can never kill the lame.” The logic of that is that before the scheduled date for combat arrives, the lame would have managed to crawl out of the war zone to a place of safety. How it happens that the war always catches flatfooted NFF, the lame, is unclear. How do they expect the players to give of their best at these competitions if they are not paid their allowances promptly? There must be a better way of funding these teams instead of depending entirely on the lean resources of the Sport Ministry.

Although the Super Falcons didn’t retain the trophy or even win any medal in Morocco, the girls showed a lot of grit, tenacity and the original fighting spirit of the true Nigerian especially in its match with the home team Morocco where two of its players were red-carded in what seemed like questionable officiating. They dug their heels into the pitch and produced the addiction of a gruelling encounter that seemed like pure magic.

Nine players faced eleven for a total of 50 minutes with the whiff of the obsessional. They produced pure magic despite the daunting odds and the partisan howling of a crowd hungry for victory. These girls were truly gutsy and they gave their all producing frissons of partisan passion among their supporters. I was truly proud of their unvarnished gallantry and heroism even though they lost. Their dramatisation of courage and tenacity was simply electrifying.

Even though the tournament ended on a sour note for Nigeria the award of the African Women player of the year to Ms Asisat Oshoala for the fifth time was more than compensatory. So far four Nigerian women have been honoured with the award: They are Mercy Akide, Cynthia Uwak and Perpetua Nkwocha who had earned it four times. That fabulous record was only broken by Asisat Oshoala, who was unfortunately knocked out of the tournament by knee injury. In 2014 during the FIFA Under 20 Women’s World Cup, Oshoala was named the best player of the tournament. Since then she hasn’t looked back. She has been moving from glory to glory, giving Nigeria an outstanding image in women’s football.

Oshoala is the first African to win the award five times, bettering by one the record that her compatriot Nkwocha set. The award arises from her excellent record at her Barcelona Femeni club where, despite injury, she scored 20 goals in 19 league appearances. She had to share the award with a Brazilian Geyse Ferreira who scored the same number of goals in 27 appearances. If Oshoala had not been harassed by injury her record would have been more outstanding. If she remains healthy and free from injuries it is likely that she will earn more plaudits before she hangs her boots.

At 27 she has done exceedingly well. She helped her club to win the Spanish league for the 2nd time in a row. She also won the Spanish Premiera Iberdrola Golden Boot, making her the first African to achieve the feat. For her Barca club Oshoala has so far scored 81 goals in 104 appearances, which has encouraged the club to extend her contract till the 2023 season.

Oshoala has played football on three continents. In Britain she played for Arsenal as well as Liverpool. Then she got tempted by the allure of big bucks in China, where she played for the Chinese champion club Dahan Quanjian before exiting to Barcelona in Spain.

Oshoala is obviously the poster girl of Nigeria’s female football who has made Nigeria very proud in the world’s female soccer arena. Her success a few days ago is a reminder to Nigerians that this is the time to groom some new Oshoalas since, at 27, she doesn’t have much of playing time left.

The managers of the Super Falcons must begin the search for new talents that will replace the ageing players who have served the country meritoriously for the past many years. Some of the players are already in their late 30s and will soon hang their boots while younger players are introduced into the game.

The Morocco tournament is Nigeria’s wake-up call to return to the drawing board if the country is to retain its relevance in women’s football.

Ray Ekpu
Ray Ekpu
Ray Ekpu has two degrees from the University of Lagos, a bachelors degree and masters degree in Mass Communication. He also has a diploma in Advanced Journalism from Indiana University, Bloomington, USA. He cut his journalism teeth at the Nigerian Chronicle where he rose like a meteor to its editorship position in 1977. Apart from editing the Sunday Times, Africa's highest selling newspaper at the time, he also edited the Business Times and later became Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Concord Group of Newspapers. In 1984, he along with three other friends - Dele Giwa, Dan Agbese and Yakubu Mohammed - established the path-breaking newsmagazine, Newswatch. He became the magazine's Editor in Chief and Chief Executive in 1986. His writings have been published in several Nigerian newspapers and magazines as well as in such foreign publications as the Portland Oregonian, Milwaukee Sentinel, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, and the Journal of Democracy. He has contributed chapters to several books and edited Newswatch Best, A leap of Faith, Jogging in the Jungle: The Newswatch Story, Ojukwu and co-edited with Yakubu Mohammed Nigeria's Business and Trade Fair Journal. Mr. Ekpu's writing style has been studied in several Nigerian Universities while he has delivered Journalism lectures in several universities and media houses in Africa, Europe and America over the years. He has been given many awards, national and international including the International Editor of the year Award (1987) for Journalism Excellence


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