Nigeria’s U-20 women’s team, the Falconets, are ambitiously rating their chances of becoming the first African team to win a women’s FIFA event in September. Their confidence springs from a surprise success two years ago when they reached the final of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Germany.
Nigeria lost in that match against a more organised home nation, but they have now returned to the biennial competition armed with the belief that they could do themselves one better in Japan. “We know the pressure is on Nigeria because of our performance at the last World Cup, but we are working towards posting another good outing,” declared centre forward Desire Oparanozie, who along with Ebere Orji was the team’s leading scorer with two goals at Germany 2010.
“The match against Korea, which kicks off our campaign [on 19 August], will determine how far we could go and can boost our confidence. You can be sure that I am not going to Japan to count skyscrapers, but to win the World Cup,” added fellow striker Francisca Ordega.
The Falconets, under new coach Edwin Okon, qualified for Japan 2012 in convincing style after they hammered their DR Congo counterparts 7-0 on aggregate. After just eight minutes at the Stade d’Martyrs in Kinshasa, Ngozi Okobi put Nigeria ahead. Shortly after that, striker Desire Oparanozie made it 2-0, and Francisca Ordega scored her fourth goal in the qualifiers with a sizzler on 23 minutes to beat the hosts 3-0 in the second leg. In the previous round of the qualifiers, the Falconets dumped Zimbabwe 6-0 on aggregate.
In Japan, Nigeria are drawn against South American heavyweights Brazil, Korea Republic and 2012 European semi-finalists Italy in Group B. After the draw at the Conrad Hotel in downtown Tokyo, coach Okon was excited that the serious end of the journey has begun for the Falconets. “Now we know who our opponents are. All the countries in our group are great with excellent records in the women's game,” he said.
Experience builds on itself
At the 2004 edition in Thailand, Nigeria squared up against Brazil and Italy at the group phase, defeating the South Americans and earning a 1-1 draw with Italy. However, two years later in Russia, Brazil eliminated Nigeria in the quarterfinal. Former Nigeria women’s coach Eucharia Uche has tipped the Falconets as the team to beat at this year's tournament. "We are not in a bad group and so I don't see any problems for the Falconets qualifying from that there,” said the former international striker. "There is no country in the world that the present U-20 team cannot beat. They have one of the best coaches in the country, and they are a lot more experienced than they were two years ago in Germany.”
That experience is obvious as several of the players from Germany 2010 are still very much a part of the current squad and fall under the stipulated age limit. These players include Gloria Ofoegbu, Oparanozie, Esther Uchechi, Esther Sunday, Ebere Orji and Blessing Edoho. Orji soldiered on despite the death of her father during the competition to emerge as one of the stars of the last tournament. The 19-year-old Rivers Angels attacking midfielder, along with forceful striker Oparanozie and skipper Ofoegbu, have since been capped at full international level. They have been complimented by several shinning lights from the 2010 U-17 World Cup like Ordega, Ngozi Okobi, Ngo Ujoku, Jane David and Damilola Akano.
Star defender Jennifer Osawaru was a major injury concern after she sprained her ankle in a qualifying match against DR Congo in May, but she has since regained full fitness. The team are scheduled to begin residential training with 35 players in the country’s capital city of Abuja before they embark on an overseas training tour. Korea was a proposed destination, but after the countries were pitched against each other in the first round of the tournament, officials are now having a second thought about that arrangement. They may now set up an overseas training camp in Portugal.