Falconets heading for the clouds
© Foto-net

After failing to get past the quarter-finals of the last three FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cups, an ambitious Nigeria team are aiming to go all the way this July in Germany. The powerhouse of the women’s game in Africa, Nigeria have featured in all four previous editions of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup and came close to reaching the last four in Chile two years ago before France staged a late rally to win 3-2 with two minutes left on the clock.

"The team got as far as the quarter-final of the last tournament and so our target is to surpass that. I will be fulfilled if I lead this team to the final of the World Cup," said Nigeria's respected coach, Adat Egan.

The Falconets, as the Nigeria U-20 team are known, qualified in emphatic fashion for Germany 2010 by drubbing Zimbabwe 10-1 on aggregate before they thrashed their South African counterparts 12-3 over two legs.

I have a team of very disciplined and committed players, who are willing to learn and want to make a name for themselves and their country.
Nigeria coach Adat Egan

The 54-year-old Egan is quick to admit his team have continued to improve, but he is equally aware that the competition will be a lot tougher in Germany. "The good thing about this team is that they have been improving with every match. They have made gradual progress leading to the World Cup,” offered the former international defender, who has been involved in women’s football for the past 12 years.

"When we defeated South Africa 7-0 at home, we were better than when we played them on their own ground. The girls are gradually blending, they played for each other and showed confidence and good understanding of the game,” he continued. “But this is not to say that there is no room for improvement. We need to work very hard and we have to do a lot better than what we did in the qualifiers because we are now up against the best teams in the world. The qualifiers are quite different from the World Cup and as such we will not relax but continue to work hard to present a formidable team in Germany.”

Nigeria are drawn along with England, Mexico and Japan in the first round of the World Cup, and they open their campaign on 14 July against England in Augsburg. Nigeria and England played out a 1-1 draw in Chile in 2008. England’s only other World Cup appearance was in 2002. Mexico have featured three times in this tournament (2002, 2006, and 2008) but have never gone past the group stage, while Japan are making their debut.

“They are all good teams with different pedigrees in female football. England and Japan have shown their stuff in different tournaments but I remain positive that we will make it out of the group,” predicted the one-time assistant coach of the country’s full international women’s team.

Many weapons in attack
The Falconets gave some of the country’s top stars like Cynthia Uwak (2006) and Rita Chikwelu (2008) their international breakthrough. Uwak would go on to be crowned Africa’s best player in 2006 and featured at the Beijing Olympics two years ago.

And this summer new stars are expected to emerge from Egan’s high-powered team, including the side’s top scorer with six goals, Uchechi Sunday, Ebere Orji, who netted five goals in the qualifiers and three at Chile 2008, and Glory Iroka. Meanwhile, striker Ugochi Oparanozie has been at the middle of a tug of war between the Falconets and the Under-17 team, the Flamingos, after both teams qualified for their respective World Cups. Coach Egan says he is hopeful Oparanozie will be on the flight to Germany with him.

Nigeria are not likely to suffer any stage fright in Germany this summer because they have as many as 10 players from the team who fell to France in Chile two years ago. The Falconets’ training camp ahead of the World Cup opened in early May in Abuja with a squad of 30 players, while the team handlers plan a European training tour in the first week of June to finalise their preparations for the tournament.

"I have suggested Spain or France for us to round out our build-up for the World Cup,” said Egan, who also coaches top women’s club Pelican Stars. “We hope to play a couple of friendly matches there to keep the players in shape and settle down in an area where we will have full and uninterrupted concentration.

“I have a team of very disciplined and committed players, who are willing to learn and want to make a name for themselves and their country. We are confident we will achieve our targets,” he concluded.