The warmth and camaraderie inside a packed hall at a hotel in Abuja appeared to drive away the cold from the dusty Harmattan wind blowing outside as the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ Trophy made a first-ever appearance in Nigeria.
As part of the FIFA and Local Organising Committee Welcome Tour to all participating nations in the Women’s World Cup Germany 2011, the cream of Nigerian football came together for a special night of celebrations looking ahead to the finals. One of the biggest stars on hand was Nigeria’s captain at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™, Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha, who seemed thrilled at the reception.
“It is great to be here to see how things are really done in a professional way,” said the Super Eagles great. “Who could have imagined four or five years ago that women’s football would be promoted this way? It is a big credit to the LOC in Germany for coming out with this kind of initiative to promote the competition. And this is deservedly so because in the past couple of years women’s football has come a long way. It keeps improving and so it deserves the entire pomp and pageantry and the atmosphere we got here today.”
Falcons on the rise
It was only fitting that Nigeria was the first African stopover for the most prized diadem in women’s football as the Super Falcons have been the dominant force in the women’s game in Africa since 1991. In fact, they were unbeaten on the continent until 2008 when hosts Equatorial Guinea defeated them on the way to winning the African championship in front of their own fans. However, Nigeria reclaimed their crown in most emphatic fashion by dumping Equatorial Guinea 4-2 in the final of the CAF African Women's Championship late last year in South Africa.
That success has created excitement ahead of Germany 2011, which was obvious for all to see Wednesday evening as captivated fans, players and officials proudly posed with the Women’s World Cup Trophy for snapshots they hope to show their children and grandchildren for years to come. The Welcome Tour spearheaded by the President of the LOC, Steffi Jones, has put the country in the mood for a feast of football that will be served up in nine German cities this summer.
A video playback of Okocha’s wonder goal for Eintracht Frankfurt against Karlsruhe 19 years ago, when he ghosted past half-a-dozen players before firing past the legendary Oliver Khan, most certainly got memories of a golden past flooding back. But hopes are high that the also-played clip of last year’s historic FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup final between hosts Germany and Nigeria could be a forecast of things to come.
Building for the future, quickly
Seven players from the U-20 World Cup made the big jump to the full international team for the African Women’s Championship: Ebere Orji, Ogochi Oparanozie, Amaranchi Okoronkwo, Gloria Iroka, Esther Sunday, Onye Ukonnu and Ochinachi Ohane. Add them to two promising strikers from the FIFA U-17 World Cup team in Trinidad and Tobago, Lovet Ayila and Francisca Udegha, and what coach Eucharia Uche has is a youthful squad looking to make a splash.
A former international striker herself, Uche has already made history as the first female coach to lead Nigeria to a major international trophy and more history beckons for her in Germany. Uche received the official match ball for the 2011 World Cup from LOC chief Steffi Jones and said it signalled a significant moment for her team. “Today, the official match ball has been handed to me as the chief coach of the Nigerian team, and it means that the World Cup in Germany in 2011 is a reality and it is around the corner,” Uche declared. “And with this ball we are again reminded that it is time to start preparation in earnest for the competition.”
Preparations for the event began this week with a residential training camp in Abuja with 30 fresh call-ups. “We have started working with 30 players who were not picked to be part of Africa Women’s Championship in South Africa. We want to watch them thoroughly and see who we could work with at the World Cup,” the coach disclosed. “These players have to prove that they have the stuff to play at the World Cup. There is no automatic shirt for any player, and everyone must prove again why she has to be in the team.”
Nigeria are drawn in a tough first round group at Germany 2011 against defending champions and hosts Germany, along with France and Canada. Warm-up matches have already been arranged with Finland, Hungary and most likely Norway. The country’s best World Cup performance was achieved in 1999, when they reached the last eight of the tournament in the USA.