Millions of footballers all over the world dream of one day playing on the global stage, but most never achieve that goal. Nigeria's Desire Oparanozie and Ebere Orji have not only achieved that, they have done so at different levels and between them, the two have appeared at an astonishing 10 World Cups - five each!
It started for both of them in 2008, when they were a part of the Flamingoes side that competed in New Zealand at the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup. Aged just 14, Orji was the youngest player in the squad and Oparanozie was just a year older. She still recalls their first game against Korea Republic. “We got off to a winning start and that is a wonderful memory to have. We had a great side in that tournament and should have advanced to the second round.”
Orji's lasting memories of her time in New Zealand is the beauty of the countryside. “Being so young, I had not traveled widely and to see this beautiful country with the sea surrounding, it was a wonderful experience. I had not seen anything like that before.”
After their 2-1 win against the Koreans in the first match, Nigeria were beaten 1-0 by England in their second game, setting up a decisive clash against Brazil, which they needed to win to stay in the competition. The game against Brazil is a match both would prefer not to remember. “We knew that we would probably have to win the game to progress, but I was injured and could not play. That was very frustrating, sitting on the sidelines and not being able to help the team,” Oparanozie recalls.
Orji, who leveled for her side shortly before the break, has her own personal heart-break story of what happened later. “I was sent off and that was really tough for my side. Although we managed to draw 2-2, it was not enough and we were knocked out. It was very disappointing.”
Learning from U-17 lessons
Even though their first performance on the global stage ended in disappointment, they both took something very valuable from it: experience. And it was that experience they both put to good use – in Orji's case, just a few weeks later.
Exactly 17 days after being sent off against Brazil, Orji was back on the pitch, albeit over 9,000 kilometers away in Chile as Nigeria's Falconets took on England in their second group game at the U-20 World Cup. This time around, the west Africans won their group and advanced to the quarter-finals, where they were knocked out by France.
Two years later, Orji and Oparanozie teamed up again at the U-20 World Cup in Germany, both playing in all six matches as their team became the first from Africa to qualify for the final of a women's World Cup. Both played their part, sharing four of the six goals Nigeria scored en route to the final. “This was my best World Cup experience. To play in the final against the host was a terrific achievement and to come home with a silver medal is something I will cherish forever.”
Since then, both have continued playing on the global stage, as Orji made the Nigerian squad for the Women's World Cup in 2011 and was back at the U-20 level a year later. Oparanozie can add the 2015 World Cup to those two appearances.
Making a career
Playing at the U-17 World Cup also allowed both players to embark on a professional career that has seen them play in different countries in Europe. Orji plays in Hungary for Ferencvaros and last season won both league and cup with the club from the capital. This allowed her to gain further experience by playing in the UEFA Women's Champions League.
“Last season I scored some 30 goals in the league and this season I had eight after the first four matches. But I know that I have to keep on working hard to keep scoring. That is what I want to do, as I just love scoring goals.”
After stints in Russia, Germany and Turkey, Oparanozie, meanwhile, has landed in France, where she plays for Guingamp. “Playing in France has been good. I feel very welcome here. I've been happy since I got here and things have really improved compared to the other places that I've played in in Europe.
“It all started in New Zealand though. Playing there in a FIFA-organised tournament was a great platform for me. The experience was very good and I thought if I could play at this level, I could play at the World Cup. I told myself: 'Why not go all the way?'”