A new era in Africa
© AFP

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that nothing is certain except death and taxes, yet until recently Nigeria's dominance of African women's football might have been added to that famously short list. The CAF Women's Championship had certainly been the exclusive preserve of the Super Falcons ever since its 1991 inception, with the extent of the Nigerian stranglehold best illustrated in the aggregate score of 29-2 from their seven final appearances.

With this supremacy at senior level matched by pre-eminence in the continent's youth competitions, everyone expected a retelling of the same old story when the eighth edition of CAF's flagship women's tournament kicked off in Equatorial Guinea. What unfolded merely reaffirmed that, in football, there are no certainties.

It had always been assumed, after all, that if Nigeria were ever to be dethroned, it would be Ghana, or perhaps Cameroon, who would seize their crown. Absolutely no-one expected the final to be contested by Equatorial Guinea and South Africa, nor that the unfancied hosts would emerge with the prize.

Yet that was exactly what transpired as the existing African order was turned on its head in a tournament brimming with upsets. The first came when Ghana failed to survive the group stage, beaten by a South Africa side that had arrived with the intention of "going to war", according to coach Augustine Makalakane.

While Banyana Banyana advanced to the semi-finals alongside a sluggish-looking Nigeria, the hosts were signalling their intent by establishing the only 100 per cent record of the group phase. However, with South Africa having qualified ahead of the Falcons from Group B, Equatorial Guinea's dubious reward for their early heroics was an imposing semi-final date with the seven-time champions.

The holders had toiled, drawing their opening two matches, but they still fully expected to see off a team that included a clutch of naturalised, Nigeria-born players. Equatorial Guinea had other ideas, though, and claimed a well deserved 1-0 victory when Anonma Genoveva's 58th-minute free-kick somehow found a way past goalkeeper Precious Dede.

This is an embarrassment to the nation. It is clear that there must be an overhaul in several aspects of our women's football.
Nigeria Football Federation chairman Sani Lulu Abdullahi.


The shock within Nigerian ranks was palpable. Sani Lulu Abdullahi, chairman of the national association, did not mince his words. "This is an embarrassment to the nation," he said. "It is clear that there must be an overhaul in several aspects of our women's football."

Nigeria went on to claim bronze, albeit requiring penalties to edge out Cameroon, but the critics still rounded on coach Joseph Ladipo, who accepted "full responsibility" for his side's disappointing showing. He was, however, able to appreciate the bigger picture: "This goes to show that the game of female football has gone to a different level in Africa."

The finalists certainly proved this, performing to a standard that raised hopes that a new and more open era has been ushered in. South Africa had taken their place with a superb 3-0 semi-final victory over Cameroon, but despite hoping that it would prove third time lucky after final defeats in 2000 and 2004, it was the home fans who went home happy.

Equatorial Guinea dominated the early stages and took a deserved 22nd-minute lead through Blessing Naduju. Banyana Banyana had no intentions of meekly surrendering to defeat, however, and levelled 13 minutes later when the outstanding Alice Mattlou, a hat-trick heroine in the semi-finals, fired home her sixth goal of the tournament.

That Mattlou was ultimately denied both a gold medal and the competition's MVP award was down to one player: Genevova Anonma. Indeed, Equatorial Guinea's inspirational captain had already emerged as the jewel in the hosts' crown long before she provided a fitting climax to this historic tournament, curling home a superb 66th-minute free-kick to seal victory.

This decisive goal also ensured that Mattlou was forced to share the top scorer award with her nemesis, although the 22-year-old South Africa star was adamant that her team had deserved better. "There is nothing harder than playing the hosts in front of their own supporters," she said. "Yet we played well and in my heart I know we deserved the title."

With places at the FIFA Women's World Cup Germany 2011 up for grabs, the stakes will be considerably higher when South Africa have the chance to exact revenge two years from now. We will see then whether this edition was simply a blip, or if a new African order truly has been established.