Uwak's young Falcons soar
© FIFA.com

Even though it was the opening match in a very tough Group B at China 2007, Effiom Ntiero did not hesitate for a moment when writing out the team sheet. Faced with a highly experienced Sweden team who finished runners-up at the last FIFA Women's World Cup, the Nigeria coach decided to let youth have its say.

When kick-off came around, he fielded five players aged 21 or younger, four of whom had played at last year's FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Russia. Foremost among this youthful crop is 21-year-old star striker and African Player of the Year Cynthia Uwak, who is already considered as one of the world's top players. In 2006, she scored six goals in the continental qualifiers on her way to being nominated for FIFA Women's Player of the Year.

"Uwak is an incredible player," said Ntiero in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "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." The message is clear: number 18 is the linchpin of the Super Falcons.

Not that Nigeria are a one-woman show - that would be an insult to the five-time African champions. And who better to take us through some of the new faces in the line-up than Uwak herself, whose career highlight at the moment remains the 2-1 quarter-final defeat to Brazil in Russia last year.

World champions? Why not?
"A lot of the girls have got even better since they moved up to the full international team. They came here with their carefree style and have brought a lot of confidence to the group. Whichever opponents we're facing, they're all top level, but our new girls know exactly what to expect."

Proof of this was provided by attacker Rita Chikwelu, and defenders Faith Ikidi and Ulumma Jerome, all of whom were in the starting line-up against Sweden. "The opening matches of a tournament are always difficult," continued Uwak as she spoke with FIFA.com. "Getting a point from the opener was a good result, as it will mean that we have less pressure on us going into the next matches. Sure, it took us a while to get back into the match after Sweden opened the scoring, but who knows; if we had scored first, we may have gone on to lose."

Many people see Group B as the toughest of the lot, meaning that every match is vital. "We're not planning ahead, we'll take each opponent as thet come. But it's true that our match against Korea DPR will be totally different from the opener. We'll go out on to the pitch with the same mindset but we may change tack and adapt once we're a few minutes in."

Coach Ntiero may give a few other members of his Russia 2006 side some playing time, including midfielders Ogonna Chukwudi and Maureen Eke and high-flying replacement goalkeeper Tochukwu Oluehi. One thing is certain, however: if the Nigerians live up to their ambitions, then the coach will need a full squad at his disposal.

"Our main aim is to get through the first round. After that, we'll see how far we can get. But I've got to admit that at the back of my mind, I'm thinking about that world title," said Uwak with a smile.