Alberta Sackey, Ghana (Photo by Jon Buckle/EMPICS via Getty Images)
Nigeria began the latest Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (AWCON) — 2022 edition — just as they started the last, four years ago: with a narrow defeat to South Africa.
No side has, in fact, had more success at the finals against Nigeria than the Banyana Banyana. Monday’s victory was the South Africans’ third in AWCON meetings with their great rivals – impressive, considering the Super Falcons have lost just six times overall in the tournament’s history, despite playing the maximum number of games at each of the last 11 editions.
But, while Nigeria fans still feel terrible each time the Falcons lose a game, even if that is a rather infrequent occurrence, nothing compares to how bad the experience was when they lost to another African team – in a competitive game – for the very first time.
That was two decades ago, when Nigeria hosted the third edition of the African Women’s Championship (as the tournament was then known).
Even at that early stage in the history of the African women’s game, the Nigerian team had a deeply entrenched culture of winning, having already established themselves as quite formidable by conquering all previous continental competitions.
More than formidable, though, they were actually invincible, and Nigeria sought to keep that run going when the showpiece returned to their shores in late 2002. The Falcons weren’t about to be knocked off their perch by no team; certainly not hapless Ethiopia, who were dispatched 3-0 in their group opener.
But, just maybe… Ghana?
Well, hardly anyone thought so.
Nigeria had beaten the Black Queens four years prior to win the tournament’s very first edition, so the collective mood at the Warri Township Stadium that December evening was overwhelmingly confident about the home team’s chances of getting the better of their west African neighbours once more.
Not even when the guests took a 33rd-minute lead, through the in-form Alberta Sackey, was there any real fear among Nigerians that their team could be vanquished at full-time. Winning – or, failing that, not losing – was, after all, all they’d ever known as Africa’s sole superpower.
It all changed that day.
Nigeria threw all they had at their opponents in a bid to draw level and, possibly, even overturn the score, but Ghana held firm and steady through the storm. And when the clouds finally cleared, the five-pointed black star rose, far beyond the reach of the Falcons.
Ghana had achieved the unprecedented, proving to the rest of the continent that Nigeria, though mighty, were indeed beatable; with enough quality, and equal parts grit, they could be overpowered. The Queens had shown the way, and two decades down the line, other countries are still drawing on that inspiration Ghana provided.
“What made this so special was that Nigeria had never lost in African play and on top of that is that the game was held in Nigeria,” she explained.
Sackey isn’t the only one with vivid memories of that historic outcome, though.
Mercy Akide-Udoh, arguably the best player on the other team and the lady Sackey succeeded as Africa’s footballing queen, hasn’t forgotten, either, making reference to it in addressing the current cast of Falcons ahead of the 2022 AWCON.
“That defeat shocked us,” she wrote. “It upset us.”
Yet, as Akide-Udoh noted, it did even more.
“It inspired us to come back stronger and we beat [Ghana] 2-0 in the Final.”
They did so less than a fortnight later, reducing the stunning setback inflicted by Ghana to a mere footnote in the end. That’s the sort of spirit Randy Waldrum would hope his girls summon for the remainder of the ongoing tournament in Morocco: those remarkable powers of recovery first displayed by Akide & Co.
For a more recent reference point, there is the 2018 AWCON, mentioned at the outset of this article, when the Asisat Oshoala-led squad shrugged off the earlier defeat to South Africa and went on to beat the same team in the final.
Nigeria – being Nigeria, the best there is in Africa – would fancy their chances of going all the way again and repeating the feat, with a record-extending 10th title still there for the taking.