African women primed for big stage

Equatorial Guinea may be the reigning champions of African women’s football, but they will travel to South Africa still rated as underdogs when they defend their trophy against the continent’s other heavyweights at the CAF African Women’s Championships.

Nigeria’s Super Falcons, seven-time continental champions, remain firm favourites in a tournament they have dominated since its inception. So ruthless and clinical are the Nigerians in this competition that they have only been upstaged once in eight events, and that was in Equatorial Guinea two years ago. They had previously created a veil of invincibility and even though they will come in finally having tasted defeat, they will be making the trip to South Africa ready to re-claim the crown they have worn so comfortably before.

Eucharia Uche, the Super Falcons coach, believes they can lift the trophy again. “The girls are in high spirits,” said the former international player. “We have been working very hard in the last few days. It’s important for us to play well and win this trophy again. Some people say we are the favourites, but in football, you can’t say that for sure. However, we have a strong desire to win this trophy again.”

There is no doubt that we will face strong teams, but we need to win this championship for our people, especially on home soil.
South African star Noko Matlou

The Nigerian coach has blended a good bit of youth with experience, having picked nine players that participated in the recent U-20 and U-17 FIFA World Cups. They include the potent attacking duo of Ebere Orji and Ugochi Oparanozie.

Holders hold down the hype
Very little has been said about the holders, Equatorial Guinea, and, while this might sound like overlooking the champions, it could be a blessing in disguise for a previously unheralded side trying to consolidate their gains without the media circus that often follows teams like Nigeria and South Africa. They will be quick to remind pundits that they won this tournament two years ago as outsiders, handing Nigeria their first-ever continental defeat along the way.

Of course there is more at stake than just bragging rights in Africa, as the eight nations are also jostling for two places at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany next year.

The tournament, to be hosted in the Ekurhuleni Municipality (east of Johannesburg), kicks off on Sunday and will feature two groups with the top two teams advancing to the last four. The winners of the semi-final matches will qualify for Germany 2011 and compete in the continental final on 14 November.

Nigeria and South Africa are seen as the primary contenders to the crown, but Ghana, Cameroon and the defending champions are capable of stealing glory, while Algeria, Mali and debutants Tanzania are possible dark horses. But the triumph of the Nzalang Nacional two years ago signalled that the power paradigms are shifting in African women’s football. They, and the others, will take heart from the fact that, in the last edition, they beat both Nigeria and an experienced South African side that was composed of mainly overseas-based stars and seasoned campaigners.

A lot of pressure rests on the shoulders of the hosts – known fondly as Banyana Banyana – who have impressed their supporters but only in patches. Despite reaching the final match three previous times, they are yet to claim top prize at the continental championship. And they will have an uphill battle from the onset as they have been grouped with arch-rivals, Nigeria. In past years, the Falcons have been South Africa’s bogey side. In fact, the previous two times South Africa have hosted the competition, Nigeria have emerged victorious.

Midfielders Kylie-Ann Louw and Nompumelelo Nyandeni are expected to combine with reigning African Women’s Player of the Year, Noko Matlou, to spearhead the South African attack. “There is no doubt that we will face strong teams, but we need to win this championship for our people, especially on home soil,” said Matlou.

Group A:
South Africa - Tanzania; Nigeria - Mali
South Africa - Nigeria; Tanzania - Mali
South Africa - Mali; Tanzania - Nigeria

Group B:
Equatorial Guinea - Cameroon; Algeria - Ghana
Equatorial Guinea - Algeria; Cameroon - Ghana
Equatorial Guinea - Ghana; Cameroon - Algeria