By Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (August 28th 2014)
Were you Watching?
Did you watch the finals of the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup last Sunday night (August 24th)? If you did, I welcome you to the future. I believe that what happened in Montreal, Canada, between Germany and Nigeria was a preview of the future – the emergence of an African team good enough to become world champions in the beautiful game of football.
Sir Walter Winterbottom, England’s youngest and longest-serving national team manager, and, later, the legendary Brazilian striker, Pelé, had predicted that an African country would win the World Cup before the end of the last century.
That forecast did not come to pass at the highest level of the game. African countries became global champions only at junior levels, with the credibility of some of the victories in doubt because of issues about the true ages of the supposedly ‘junior’ players. At age-group levels older players have a physical and mental advantage that can make the difference between winning and losing matches.
A Hard Struggle
Whereas the age-group competitions were established for the purpose of building a more solid foundation for football at grass-roots level, and specifically to narrow the huge gulf between developed and developing football cultures, African countries saw it as an end to achieve at a junior level what they could not at the senior level.
Africa’s football was considered of such low standard that, for a long time, only one spot was allotted to the continent in the World Cups, both male and female. The African teams were admitted only to make up the numbers and serve the purpose of political correctness.
For the first forty years of the World Cup, Africa was not deemed of even one automatic place at the World Cup. They had to compete in the World Group. They got their automatic place in 1970 after boycotting the 1966 edition. Morocco, hosts of the next African Cup of Nations, were the first team to qualify for the World Cup from Africaʼs group
The situation has improved significantly in recent years. With increasingly better performances Africa now has more slots in global competitions, but even that has stagnated. Africaʼs World Cup (2010) was a disappointment and Algeria and Nigeria apart, so was the latest edition. The Quarter-final barrier remains in tact.
Generally, however, one area that had suffered ‘neglect’ and, definitely, inadequate attention has been the women’s game. Africa, in particular, for years, did not put up high performances in female football. The sport suffered adversely from the consequences of cultural, religious and traditional restrictions and taboos. As a result the level and growth of female football at domestic levels in most African countries has been low and limited.
At grass-roots level, particularly in schools, there is hardly any female football played. The pool of exceptionally gifted ones is also very shallow. The few countries that have been participating in international championships have done so against the backdrop of very poor funding, neglect and little public attention.
That’s why any little achievement by the teams must be celebrated and well acknowledged. Africaʼs men have failed to break the quarter-final hoodoo in the World Cup, but Under-20s football is a different story with Ghana leading the way. In 1993 Brazil beat them in the final 2-1. Four years later they placed fourth. In 1999 Nigeria hosted the tournament and Mali came 3rd – the best of the African effort. Two years later, in Argentina, Ghana placed 2nd again and Egypt came third.
In 2005 Nigeria lost to Argentina in the final. Morocco were beaten by Brasil for third place – the second time two African teams reached the semi-finals. No African team, let alone two has achieved this in the main event. In 2009 an African country, Egypt, hosted the Under-20 World Cup – the second African nation to do so and an African nation won a World Cup for the first time – Ghana. They placed third four years later.
At Under-17 level Nigeria’s boys are the most successful in the world, with four titles, including the inaugural event at Under-16s in 1985. They won again in 1993, sandwiched between Ghana’s triumphs. They won again in 2007, losing the next edition in the final to Brasil two years later before winning again last year.
Breaking the Barrier
Africa’s men and boys have won World Cups at youth level, but never before have our women been the best in the world at any level. That’s why we must celebrate the most recent African achievement – Nigeria’s Falconets. Nigeria’s female teams, since their first appearance in 1991, have been the most successful in the continent and have represented Africa more times than any other country. Close observers have seen a slow but steady progress of the Nigerian female teams.
The major tipping point appears to be the FIFA Women’s Under-20 championship of 2010 in Germany. The Nigerian girls played against the host nation in the finals of that competition. Although they lost by 2-0 the occasion marked Africa’s best performance in all categories of female football until that time.
Two years later in Japan, Nigeria repeated their remarkable ascension of the ladder of global football by getting to the semi-finals of the same championship and losing narrowly to the USA, a country with the best record in female football at all levels. In the last two championships, therefore, Nigeria has been up there amongst the best in the world. Last Sunday, Nigeria sounded notice of fresh ambitions, when the country met Germany again in the 2014 finals.
To play against the world’s current best footballing nation in the final, and match them ball for ball, tackle for tackle, and only narrowly lose by one goal scored by 20 year-old Lena Petermann after extra time, is confirmation that Nigeria has truly arrived at the apex of female football in the world. Petermann impressed me too. She has the knack of scoring important goals – match-winning ones. She also scored the winner in Germany’s opening match against the USA and a stunning goal which beat France in the semi-final.
The Best Player
Nigeria produced in the 2014 championship the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot award winner, the highest honour for the best player and the highest goal scorer in the championship. Both awards were won by one person, a Nigerian, Asat Oshoala, an authentic new female footballing genius!
In a match that Nigeria could have won in regulation time but lost in extra time, the world was privileged to glimpse the real possibility of an African team winning the World Cup at the highest level! What I saw that night is the clearest indication yet that an African team is about to fulfil one of football’s most anticipated predictions.
The Future Beckons
The next FIFA Women’s World Cup will take place in 2015 in Canada. I can already picture the Nigerian national team, the Falcons, a mixture of some of the girls from the present Under-20 team and remnants of the best of the old Falcons, who are now, like the finest wine, much better with age. That combination will be ‘lethal’.
The Nigerian girls in Montreal were spectacular. They displayed all the typical characteristics of Nigerian male players and more – physical strength, mental toughness, athleticism, great skills and (their greatest asset) uncommon fighting spirit. This team can play with such power and pace that most opposition will find it hard to deal with. They will play as if possessed with some spirit, fighting and contesting for every ball as if their lives depended on it.
With a little bit of improvement in the technical area, the girls will be ready to take on the world and do what the men have failed to do – win the World Cup for the first time. That way, Walter Winterbottom’s prediction half a century ago, and Pelé’s, a little bit later, would finally be fulfilled.
Well done magnificent Falconets!