One of the biggest shocks of the first two days of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Papua New Guinea 2016 was undoubtedly Nigeria’s 6-0 defeat by Japan, as the 2014 finalists suffered their worst-ever loss in this competition in their opening match against the Asian champions.
"I don’t know how it could have happened," striker Chinwendu Ihezuo admitted to FIFA.com. "We weren’t able to show what we can do. We just kept conceding goals. If we were to play against Japan again now, it would be a totally different story. We wouldn’t make it so easy for them this time." Nevertheless, the African side must now deal with the burden those six strikes have placed on their goal difference.
Things looked similarly ominous when Gabrielle Carle gave Canada the lead 15 minutes into Nigeria’s second match. With the Super Falconets looking temporarily rattled, experienced players such as Ihezuo stepped in to rally those around them. “I told my team-mates that we could still beat them and not to lose hope,” she explained. “I have to lead the side. We had more experience in the squad in 2014, but although there are now plenty of young players in our ranks, nobody should ever underestimate us.” The Africans promptly turned the game in their favour by striking before and after half-time, before Ihezuo put the result beyond doubt to hand her team a 3-1 win.
The 19-year-old began playing football in the streets of the Lagos neighbourhood of Ajegunle, where world-class players such as former Nigerian internationals Samson Siasia, Taribo West and Emmanuel Amunike first kicked a ball. “I began playing the game as a young girl, and soon realised that I had a talent for it,” Ihezuo explained. “I always played with the boys, which made me even stronger. That gave me several advantages when facing girls my own age.”
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For the youngest of eight children, the tournament in Papua New Guinea is already her fourth major international competition appearance. After making quarter-final exits with Nigeria at the U-17 Women’s World Cups in 2012 and 2014, she was also part of the team that suffered a narrow 1-0 defeat to Germany in the final of the U-20 tournament in Canada two years ago. Ihezuo still holds the record for most goals scored in a single U-17 Women’s World Cup game after finding the target five times in an 11-0 victory over Azerbaijan – an achievement that ultimately helped her to collect the adidas Silver Boot as the event’s second-highest scorer.
Ihezuo remained in Calabar with her club Delta Queens, who have won more championship titles than any other team in Nigeria, until earlier this year. Then, the striker – who cites no less than Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo as her role model – signed for Kazakh side BIIK Kazygurt, where she has scored 16 goals in 20 games and gained vital exposure in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. “It’s a great opportunity for me, and one that is giving me so much experience,” she said. “I got to know many fantastic players in the Champions League and can learn so much from them.”
Nigeria face their next test on Sunday as they take on Spain, who have impressed so far at this tournament by scoring six goals, while conceding none in victories over Canada and Japan. “We’ll just concentrate on ourselves and we have to play our game,” Ihezuo said. “Spain beat Japan, so they’re a great team. We’ll have to give it everything we’ve got. If we do that, we can beat them.”
The Super Falconets’ shaky start to the competition may yet prove to be a good thing. After all, they drew 1-1 with Mexico in 2014 before storming to the final with a string of brilliant performances – and Ihezuo is not ruling out a repeat of that success. “The title is all that matters to us, and we’ve got our sights set on it again.”