It is no great disrespect to the rest of the continent to say that the story of African women’s football has been all about Nigeria – well, almost all about them.
The Super Falcons had won all but two of the first 11 editions of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON), in its current format, only missing out on glory in 2008 and 2012. Those exceptions were won – and hosted – by Equatorial Guinea, the central African country that came up strongly towards the end of the noughties.
The Equatoguineans could have celebrated three in a row, in fact, had they not finished on the wrong end of the highest-scoring WAFCON final yet, a 4-2 loss to – surprise, surprise – Nigeria in 2010. Any predictions that they would go on to pose a serial threat to the existing status quo, though, proved well wide of the mark.
The fire of the Feminine Thunder quickly went out, mainly because the fuel that powered their sudden rise – an army of naturalised expatriates, mostly of Brazilian origins, but also (and more controversially) other African nationals – was rather unsustainable.
Nigeria quickly rebounded, swatting away the upstarts and resuming their otherwise untrammeled dominance – until this year, when they drove into a WAFCON field that was simply bigger and better than any competition they’d ever encountered: for the first time, the tournament started with no fewer than a dozen teams.
Most of those only appeared to make up the numbers at Morocco 2022, yes, but there were quite a few legitimate contenders who sought to claim Nigeria’s crown, even if only with an outside chance of realising those ambitions; not that Nigeria would have found the extent of covetousness very unnerving, however.
Had they really been paying attention, though?
The margins have been closing for some time now, and the alarm bells certainly should have gone off at the last edition, when Nigeria – for the very first time in its WAFCON history – lost an opening game. South Africa, a team accustomed to being Nigeria’s bridesmaids, inflicted that blow, a statement of intent that echoed right until the very end when the Falcons drowned it with loud merry-making.
And yet, even as the ecstatic victors jubilated at the Accra Sports Stadium, Ghana, they did so in the knowledge that their team had never been run as close in a final as the Banyana Banyana had done on that occasion; it was the very first of their nine titles that the Nigerians had had to win on penalties.
Notice had been served by South Africa – that Nigeria, though incredibly formidable, weren’t at all invincible – and a few others had taken a cue.
If it wasn’t clear enough, well, the South Africans simply went ahead and did it again four years later, beating Nigeria in their WAFCON Group C opener. The game wasn’t the only thing Nigeria lost that evening, however. More significantly, perhaps, they also lost their best player – Africa’s best player, ever – Asisat Oshoala to a medial ligament injury.
That setback didn’t seem to matter much in Nigeria’s two remaining group games, which they won by an aggregate 6-0 score, against Botswana and Burundi. They had a harder time in the quarter-final clash with neighbours Cameroon, a much stronger side, but the holders still prevailed, by a solitary Rasheedat Ajibade strike.
Nigeria, playing before a partisan crowd that couldn’t have been more hostile, had reason to feel hard done by, following the dismissal of two of their players – including the line-leading Ajibade – by Mauritian referee Maria Rivet, in a game that had also seen their fortuitously-acquired lead nullified by a quick leveller.
In the ensuing shootout, Ifeoma Onumonu’s miss proved crucial – as did Rosella Ayane’s decisive conversion – in denying Nigeria the chance to secure a record-extending tenth conquest.
Psychologically broken, Randy Waldrum’s ladies weren’t even good enough for bronze four days after suffering that crushing blow, losing to Zambia – a team only making their last-four debut, but also an emerging force making strides – courtesy what was, admittedly, a freak goal.
A day later, Desiree Ellis’ South Africa finally made good on their promise, running out 2-1 winners against a Morocco side that would also have made for worthy – albeit far more surprising – champions.
As pointed out earlier, however, very little of this is truly shocking. There has been a changing of the guard steadily taking place in recent times, and only the sleeping wouldn’t have seen this upset coming.
It was just last year that South Africa thumped Nigeria 4-2, at the latter’s own backyard, to win the Aisha Buhari Cup, wasn’t it?
But even at club level, Nigeria has had to take a backseat, watching rivals overtake them.
The maiden CAF Women’s Champions League, also held in 2021, saw Nigerian representatives Rivers Angels fail to make it out of their group, after damaging losses to Morocco’s AS FAR and Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa.
Ghizlane Chebbak, WAFCON 2022’s overall best player and joint top-scorer, was one of 14 FAR players in the Morocco squad; Andile Dlamini, the finals’ outstanding goalkeeper, was among six from Sundowns in Ellis’ contingent.
In fact, a remarkable total of 35 players, of the combined 52 who collected gold or silver medals on the podium last Saturday, were drawn from the two countries’ local leagues. Nigeria, coming on this trip to North Africa, brought just two of that sort along (neither of them on the books of the Angels, it must be added).
The issue here isn’t so much about Nigeria being weaker as a consequence of comparing unfavourably where the figures above are concerned – going into this tournament, they had, at least on paper, the strongest group – as it is about the other teams enjoying the yield of their respective domestic fronts, reaping increased ability and confidence.
But if Nigeria’s relative lack of belief in home-based talent is, indeed, of brow-raising proportions, even more worrying is an obvious overreliance on one or two of the team’s biggest names – a characteristic of many a Nigerian championship-winning side.
Where they once looked up to the likes of Perpetua Nkwocha, Nigeria now turn to the truly incomparable Oshoala for inspiration. That, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. The best teams – across genders and across sports – are often blessed with that player capable of conjuring the improbable in times of need, the kind that buzzes with match-winning ideas even when everyone else has precious little to offer.
Still, the true strength of any team is measured in how well it functions when shorn of such seemingly omnipotent individuals; the strongest are, at the very least, capable of holding their own on most days. Nigeria, without Oshoala – heck, without even Ajibade – couldn’t, lacking an edge against ordinarily beatable opposition.
Zambia, in contrast, fared alright without Barbra Banda, their own talismanic figure, while South Africa successfully pressed on towards their target though denied the services of the equally influential Thembi Kgatlana in the knockout rounds. Both teams, and also Morocco, relied on a weapon that Nigeria seem to have a rather short supply of: that ability to pool their might together as a unit in the absence of a single rallying point.
That, in sum, is the fresh multi-pronged challenge Nigeria now have to deal with – far more potent and potentially longer-lasting than what they faced in Equatorial Guinea a decade or so ago. And unless they find a way to respond forcefully, the Falcons could well be outshone by any of the teams among that trio at next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup and, quite possibly, for years to come at the continental showpiece.