At the outset of the fifth women's world finals, long-time Nigeria striker and captain Perpetua Nkwocha, 31, promised FIFA.com a new Nigeria. Gone were the days of lopsided defeats, mismatches and naïve tactics.
"We are here in China to show that we are a new, younger and more prepared team than ever before," she said hours before opening against reigning runners-up Sweden in an imposing section that also included USA and Korea DPR. "We are determined to show the world who we are and how well we can play."
Perpetua's promise proved more than mere optimistic bluster,
as strike partner and former youth-team standout Cynthia Uwak
earned the West Africans a 1-1 draw in their opener with a goal in
the 82nd minute.
When the dust settled, that hard-earned point against the Swedes was all that Nigeria had to show for their efforts in China. Still, they can hold their heads high. Four years ago in the USA they conceded 11 goals in their three matches against the same opposition they faced here in the Far East, but this time their goal was breached only four times.
Two of those goals came in eight first-half minutes against the North Koreans in their second game, but their brave performance in that match was lauded by head coach Ntiero. "I am proud of my girls," he said afterwards. "We hung with the Koreans that whole second half and they will know they were in a game."
'We'll be back'
Nigeria's campaign ended with another defeat by the mighty USA, but one that said a great deal for the recent improvements in the organisation and implementation of Nigerian women's football. After conceding a goal with just 52 seconds gone, some were expecting a score similar to the 5-0 win the US chalked up four years ago. Instead, the Nigerians - once known for allowing their heads to drop after a setback or two - hung in with the favourites and nearly drew level before eventually losing out by the slim margin of that early goal.
The players' disappointment after the match was certainly coloured by a justifiable pride in their overall improvement. "It's really too bad that we're going home," said star striker and African Women's Player of the Year Uwak. "We played some great football for a very young team. Although we failed to win a game, we were always in a position to do so. We'll be back four years from now, even stronger and better."
With an average age of just 23, this new and youthful Nigeria of Uwak, Rita Chikwelu and Ogonni Chukwudi should not be underestimated again.