Nigeria lean on African queen

Nigeria, lone African contenders at this summer's Women's Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing, will be looking to young star Cynthia Uwak for inspiration.

Uwak, now 21, first burst on to the scene in 2006 when she scored four goals in as many matches to lead Nigeria to the quarter-finals of the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Russia. Later that year, the powerful forward, mature beyond her years, went on to be short-listed for the FIFA Women's World Player of the Year award. Though she came in 11th in the final votes' tally, Uwak did manage to earn the CAF African Women's Player of the Year honours for the year.

She followed up that achievement by scooping the African award again in 2008, after playing a crucial role in a tense Olympic qualifying series against Ghana.

Striking force
The Sweden-based striker, who plays for Falkopings KIK, has bags of pace and a keen eye for goal. She is now the focal point of a Nigeria side containing other such established stars of the African women's game as Faith Ikidi, Perpetua Nkwocha, Ifeanyi Chiejine and Rita Chikwelu.

Hoping to make a mark in the Far East this summer, Uwak sees the opening encounters as crucial to the team's fortunes. "The opening matches of a tournament are always tough and it's important to get points in them," Uwak, who scored one goal for Nigeria in a disappointing campaign at last year's FIFA Women's World Cup in China, told FIFA.com.

Former coach Effiom Ntiero does not hesitate when describing Uwak's abilities as a footballer. "She's someone I'll happily play at any level, such is her natural talent. She's not shy about taking risks and has great skill on the ball. She has all the qualities of an exceptional footballer and on top of that, she always seems to conjure up a goal when you least expect it."

It is precisely these qualities that current coach Joseph Lapido (aka Jossy Lad) will be hoping Uwak can bring to the table again in China. The Nigerians will meet Korea DPR - who beat the African champions at last year's world finals - in their first match in Beijing, while also facing tough tests in the form of world champions Germany and runners-up Brazil.

Uwak keeps positive
Despite a seemingly impossible route to the knockout rounds, Uwak, full of hope and youthful energy, betrays no fear.

"We have a good team," she said. "African footballers like to improvise and play the ball on the ground, and this team is not different. We can beat anyone on our day and we just need to play according to our style and instincts."

Nigeria have never reached the knockout stages of a Women's Olympic Tournament since making their debut in Sydney in 2000. This is a trend Uwak and her mates are hoping to put to an end this time around, as they aim to make a mark on a major finals.

After picking up her latest African Player of the Year award in February, Uwak took direct aim at the Olympic challenge. "I will continue to play my part for Nigeria," she said. "I am praying and hoping that we can do well at the Olympics and make the country proud."

Coach Lapido, with Uwak's aid, is expecting big things. "Qualifying for the Olympics is not an end in itself," he recently remarked. "It was only to be expected for a team of our status. We are continuing to make progress and I have a feeling the girls can go on and do great things at the Games.

"They are hard workers and they pay attention. If we can get our preparations right and set up some high-profile friendlies before the tournament, the fine blend we've got here could cause a real splash in the summer."

With Uwak leading the attack, there is no telling how high the Falcons can fly.