So seismic was the impact of Nigeria’s victory over USA in the Germany 2010 quarter-finals that it has been called the greatest achievement in the history of women’s football, not just in that country but for the whole of Africa. They have a place in the last four of a FIFA women’s tournament for the first time and an entire nation is willing them to overcome Colombia tomorrow and win through to Sunday’s final.
At half-time in the game with USA, with Nigeria losing 1-0 and seemingly overrun by the defending champions, who were playing controlled, incisive football, the President of the Nigeria Football Federation, Aminu Maigari, personally telephoned coach Ndem Egan to tell his team to settle down and not be afraid of their opponents.
His words transformed the Falconets, who were a completely different proposition for the second period – when they scored a wonderful equaliser through Helen Ukaonu - and also in extra-time. Then in the penalty shoot-out their nerve stayed strongest, scoring with all four attempts while their American rivals missed two of theirs. “The President’s words were a big help for our players,” said Egan. “It gave them the confidence to go out there and win.”
It is a remarkable achievement for the African nation to have advanced this far in the competition, with only Colombia standing between them and the final. Not only are they the youngest squad (at an average of 18 years and 3 months) on duty in Germany – with the exception of fellow west Africans Ghana – but the national team seemed to have a jinx when it came to finding an escape route from the last eight into the last four. They had played in three previous quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup and lost them all.
“Before we arrived in Germany, the girls promised that we would get beyond the quarter-final stage,” Egan added. “Now we are looking to the final itself – that is our target. The information we have been getting from Nigeria is that all the people are very, very happy with the result. It will help a lot more girls to take up the game, which can only be good for the development of Nigerian football.”
A study of the history of the competition shows how the west Africans have undergone steady improvement over the recent past. In 2002 they were bottom of their group; in 2004 they finished third, which was enough to take them into the quarter-finals; two years later they were second before losing to Brazil in the last eight; and in 2008 they topped their group but fell to France in the quarter-finals.
The renowned 'Nigeria spirit', a never-say-die determination, gives them a good chance of going all the way this time. As does the level of fitness within the group, a result of the hard work masterminded by technical advisor James Peters in the four-week training camp held in Nigeria and Côte d'Ivoire.
“I told them that what a man can do, they can do even better,” Peters said. “I worked them as hard as I did my men’s teams when I worked in the US, and the results are there to be seen. Against USA we started very slowly and conserved our energies, and the final result was something we had all been dreaming about.”