Although they are the standard-bearers of women’s football in Africa, Nigeria head into the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup as dark horses. Despite having qualified for all five previous tournaments, and in possession of their usual potent mix of talent and athleticism, the Super Falcons are considered long shots to escape from an extremely testing opening group that is made up of hosts and two-time consecutive winners Germany, CONCACAF champions Canada and European up-and-comers France.
However, whetted by a second-place finish at last summer's U-20 World Cup, Nigeria’s ambitions go beyond the first stage, and the weight of expectation has fallen on the strong shoulders of coach Eucharia Ngozi Uche, who has been tasked with leading the team to a first-ever semi-final appearance. A former international striker and captain - she was on the teams that took a single point from six matches at the first two Women’s World Cups - Uche served as an assistant with the national team over the last decade before becoming the first female coach to lead the Nigerian women at the start of 2009.
Uche took over after the team had suffered their first-ever defeat in Africa, a semi-final loss to Equatorial Guinea in the African Women’s Championship. One of the true pioneers of the sport in Nigeria, she provided a steady hand as the side rode out the disappointment and began to rebuild a cohesive unit with a blend of experience and youth. Uche says the relationship of trust among the players that has been fostered is the key to their success in Germany.
“We are upbeat and spirits are high. The love between the players has never been better,” she said recently. “The players see themselves as one, and they and the coaches speak one language, which is victory. We do everything as if we were from the same womb. In such a situation it is impossible to fail.”
Driven to be ready
Uche has been busy working with the U-23 women’s Olympic team that breezed past Namibia 9-0 aggregate this month to set up a qualifying grudge match against the Equatoguineans for later in the year. In the meantime, the Nigerian Football Federation brought in a German technical assistant, Thomas Obliers, to help with shaping the side in the run up to the Women’s World Cup.
Ironically, it was an 8-0 loss in a friendly match to the Germans at the end of last year that that marked the low point of Uche’s time at the helm, and that has served as a spur for coach and team in order to make sure that they will be fully prepared for the finals this summer. “Things will be different this time around. No team is going to beat us by that margin at the World Cup,” she said recently.
The side have been in “full preparations” for the finals since February, and they have lined up two friendlies with Ghana in May before they will head to Germany for a training camp as well as a series of practice matches. Uche explained that there was much for the side to work on. “We are looking to sharpen our tactical approach and technique, and, of course, our mental approach so that we don’t lose concentration at any particular point in time.
“In the final match (of the African Women’s Championship) against Equatorial Guinea, we lost concentration for a time, even though I don’t blame the girls too much because a final has its own problems of tension,” she said about the 4-2 victory last November in South Africa.
Pulling the strands together
Some questioned Nigeria’s defence after the AWC, but the Mbaise native has no time for those doubts, pointing out that her backline played without top defender Faith Ikidi, who could not get away from her Swedish club. “The truth is that it was my defence that surprised me the most in South Africa,” she said. “They were marvellous the entire tournament, and they did so well despite the fact that they had not played in such a combination before. They did very well by my rating.”
There are queries at the other end of the pitch also after former African Footballer of the Year Cynthia Uwak was left out of the continental championship team because of doubts about the striker’s fitness. With so many players based at far-flung locales overseas, it is always a struggle for the Super Falcons to get players together and judge health and form levels.
But Uche says that the Germany-based youngster is in control of her own destiny and has time to establish herself. “I have not ruled Cynthia out of the World Cup, but then she has to prove that she can play,” she said. “There is no automatic shirt in my team, so if Cynthia Uwak proves that she is now good enough, fine.”
Nigeria, who have only advanced out of the group stage once in their five previous Women’s World Cup appearances, open their Germany 2011 against France on 26 June in Sinsheim. They will look for redemption against Germany on 30 June before closing out Group A against Canada on 5 July.