The question before Nigeria heading into this World Cup is the same one they’ve faced going into every other World Cup: Will this be the tournament the Super Falcons finally put it all together and make a real run? Unfortunately, the answer is probably the same as it has been in years past: No, this most likely isn’t Nigeria’s year. But regardless of Nigeria’s low chances of becoming the first African team to win a knockout match, Nigeria do have enough hell-raising talents in their squad to make sure that whenever they wind up going home, they will have left a trail of destruction and goals in their wake.
The story of Nigerian women’s soccer is one of continental dominance and worldwide disappointment. The African Women’s Championship poses Nigeria about the same challenge as the amateur difficulty level poses any competent FIFA player. Nigeria have won 11 of the 13 AWCON titles, and have only given up more than two goals in the five-to-six match tournament four times. There is no debate which nation bosses Africa.
This effortless dominance in the motherland has not translated to the global stage at all. Though Nigeria are one of only seven nations to qualify for each of the eight Women’s World Cups, they have only made it out of their group once, back in 1999. In 22 World Cup matches, Nigeria have compiled three wins, three draws, and 16 defeats. A sorry record for a continental powerhouse.
The underlying fault for this lack of success in major tournaments (the Super Falcons also haven’t done anything in the Olympics, progressing from their group once in three tries and failing to qualify for the last two games) is the Nigerian soccer establishment’s lack of support of the women’s team. Days after winning the African Women’s Championship in 2016, the team staged a protest at the hotel they were staying at, stating that they would not leave until the Nigerian soccer federation paid them their outstanding bonuses associated for qualifying for the tournament, winning it, and the daily allowances the federation promised them but never paid. After that episode, the federation didn’t schedule another match for the women’s team for over a year, earning public criticism from star players Asisat Oshoala and Desire Oparanozie. Developing a soccer program requires investing in infrastructure, regularly convening training camps and entering tournaments to keep the team sharp and in sync, and paying the players what they’re owed—all duties the country is infamous for abdicating. It’s hard to blame the players for coming up short on the world stage when the federation can’t even provide them with the basics.
Nevertheless, Nigeria has too many good athletes for even a broken federation to prevent from becoming great. And it’s the considerable talent on hand at those Nigerian World Cup teams of the past that has had everyone hoping that each successive tournament might be the one where it all clicks.
The Canadian World Cup four years ago was probably the most justifiably hyped fans of Nigeria have been in a long time heading into the games. With a pack of young, hungry, and gifted players, Nigerians watching from home could’ve been forgiven for believing that tournament could’ve been the one. Cooler heads would’ve looked at the absolutely brutal group that included the U.S., Sweden, and Australia, and realized Nigeria’s fate was probably set. But Nigeria almost upset the odds anyway. In a barnstorming opening match against Sweden, Nigeria fought their way into a 3-3 draw that felt like a win. The Super Falcons competed hard in their subsequent two group stage matches, but fell to narrow losses in both and finished bottom of the group. Nigeria would have to wait at least another four years for their day in the sun.
This year feels a lot like last year. Yet again Nigeria have loads of young talent, probably even more than last time. Yet again they found themselves in one of the tournament’s toughest groups, with a steep hill to climb to even snag the third-place spot and a possible round of 16 qualification that way.
Their chances are better this time than last. This group is hard, but nowhere near as hard as in 2015. And with real deal studs like Asisat Oshoala, Desire Oparanozie, and Francisca Ordega leading a fearsome attack that is good enough to hold its own even against potential cup-winners France, Nigeria have every reason to believe this group could not only get out of the group, but could also win a knockout round or two along the way. Even if they fail to get out of the group, Nigeria should strike enough fear in the hearts of their Group A opponents, and strike a hatful of goals past the other teams’ keepers, to put on a hell of a show however long this journey lasts.
Goalkeepers: Tochukwu Oluehi (Rivers Angels), Chiamaka Nnadozie (Rivers Angels), Alaba Jonathan (Bayelsa Queens)
Defenders: Osinachi Ohale (Växjö), Ngozi Ebere (Arna-Bjørnar), Onome Ebi (Henan Huishang), Faith Michael (Piteå), Chidinma Okeke (Robo Queens)
Midfielders: Amarachi Okoronkwo (Nasarawa Amazons), Evelyn Nwabuoku (Guingamp), Rita Chikwelu (Kristianstads), Chinaza Uchendu (Braga), Ngozi Okobi-Okeoghene (Eskilstuna United), Rasheedat Ajibade (Avaldsnes), Halimatu Ayinde (Eskilstuna United), Ogonna Chukwudi (Djurgårdens)
Forwards: Anam Imo (Rosengård), Asisat Oshoala (Barcelona), Desire Oparanozie (Guingamp), Uchenna Kanu (Southeastern Fire), Francisca Ordega (Shanghai WFC), Chinwendu Ihezuo (Henan Huishang), Alice Ogebe (Rivers Angels)
The Super Falcons attack. This is the obvious strategy for a team with Asisat Oshoala, Desire Oparanozie, and Francisca Ordega on the team, three players with blistering speed and powerful shots and the intense drive to always get forward and make something happen. It’s a team capable of dominating the transitions, is at all times a single long ball over the top from scoring a goal, and will have opponents permanently afraid of letting one of them get in behind.
Oshoala is the star. Even in this lauded group, the 24-year-old forward will be one of if not the best player on the field whenever the opening whistle blows. Oshoala was named the BBC’s footballer of the year in 2015, was named the best striker in the Chinese Super League in her first season there, and has now earned an exciting permanent move to Barcelona after joining the team on loan in January and lighting it up.
Her speed is absurd. She has that insulting kind of speed where she regularly takes long, risky touches that directly attack the defenders surrounding her because she has so little respect for the legs of her opponents to beat hers to the ball. Oshoala lives to unleash that speed in the open field, and she combines it with ingenious off-ball movement, constantly drifting around and between the back line looking for a crevice to sneak in behind so that when a teammate hits a pass out to her into space, the entire defense will be as good as dead. And when she does make it into the penalty box, she’s got a keen eye and cracking shot, making her one of Nigeria’s biggest goal threats. Her wrecking of Sweden in the last World Cup is a good summary of what’s to come:
Unfortunately for those three stars, the rest of the team behind the front line is pretty bad. Nigeria lack true midfielders and defenders, and their best players on those lines, Onome Ebi, Evelyn Nwabuoku, and Faith Michael, are all well into their 30s. Nigeria can’t give up six goals in the group stage the way they did last time around if they are to have any chance of success.
In general, Oshoala is the one whose running creates the space, Ordega is the one who takes advantage of the space with cutting passes, and Oparanozie tends to be the one who finishes the chances the spaces and passes create. Nigeria’s forward line is comfortably their strongest position (the Big Three are supplemented with several other promising young attackers on the bench), and it’ll be their heroics that will determine how far Nigeria go and how much fun they have along the way.
June 8, 3 p.m.: Norway vs. Nigeria at Auguste-Delaune
June 12, 9 a.m.: Nigeria vs. South Korea at Stade des Alpes
June 17, 3 p.m.: Nigeria vs. France at Roazhon Park
All times Eastern