Did you watch the finals of the FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup last Sunday night?
If you did, I welcome you to the future.
I believe that what happened in Montreal, Canada, between Germany and Nigeria, was a preview of the future, the emergence of an African team good enough to become world champions in the beautiful game of football.
Sir Walter Winterbottom, England’s first, youngest and longest national team manager, and, later, the legendary Brazilian striker, Pele, had predicted that an African country would win the World Cup before the end of the last Century.
That forecast did not come to pass at the highest level of the game. African countries became global champions only at junior levels, with the credibility of some of the victories in doubt because of issues about the true ages of the supposedly ‘junior’ players. At age-group levels older players have a physical and mental advantage that can make the difference between winning and losing matches.
Whereas the age-group competitions were established for the purpose of building a more solid foundation for football at grassroots level, and specifically to narrow the huge gulf between developed and developing football cultures, African countries saw it as an end to achieve at a junior level what they could not at the senior level.
Africa’s football was considered of such low standard that, for a long time, only one spot was allotted to the continent in the World Cups, both male and female. The African teams were admitted only to make up the numbers and serve the purpose of political correctness.
The situation has improved significantly in recent years. With increasingly better performances Africa now has more slots in global competitions.
Generally, however, one area that had suffered ‘neglect’ and, definitely, inadequate attention has been the women’s game.
Africa, in particular, for years, did not put up high performances in female football. The sport suffered adversely from the consequences of cultural, religious and traditional restrictions and taboos. As a result, the level and growth of female football at domestic levels in most African countries has been low and limited.
At grassroots level, particularly in schools, there is hardly any female football played. The pool of exceptionally gifted ones is also very shallow. The few countries that have been participating in international championships have done so against the backdrop of very poor funding, neglect and little public attention.
That’s why also any little achievement by the teams must be celebrated and well acknowledged. That’s why we must celebrate Nigeria’s Falconets.
Nigeria’s female teams, since their first appearance in 1991, have been the most successful in the continent and have represented Africa more times than any other country.
Close observers have seen a slow but steady progress of the Nigerian female teams.
The major tipping point appears to be the FIFA Women’s Under-20 championship of 2010 in Germany.
The Nigerian girls played against the host nation in the finals of that competition. Although they lost by 2-0 the occasion marked Africa’s best performance in all categories of female football up till that time.
2 years later in 2012 in Japan Nigeria repeated their remarkable ascension of the ladder of global football by getting to the semi-finals of the same championship and losing narrowly to the USA, a country with the best records in female football at all levels.
In the last two championships, therefore, Nigeria has been up there amongst the best in the world. Last Sunday, Nigeria sounded notice of fresh ambitions, when the country met Germany again in the 2014 finals.
To play against the world’s current best footballing nation, and matching them ball for ball, tackle for tackle, and only narrowly losing by one goal, is confirmation that Nigeria has truly arrived at the apex of female football in the world.
Nigeria produced in the 2014 championship the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot award winners, the highest honours for the best player and the highest goal scorer in the championship. Both awards were won by one person, a Nigerian, Asat Oshoala, an authentic new female footballing genius!
In a match that Nigeria could have won in regulation time but lost in extra time, the world was privileged to glimpse the real possibility of an African team winning the World Cup at the highest level! What I saw that night is the clearest indication yet that an African team is about to fulfill one of football’s most anticipated predictions!
The next FIFA Women’s World Cup will take place in 2015 in Canada. I can already picture the Nigerian national team, the Falcons, a mixture of some of the girls from the present Under-20 team and remnants of the best of the old Falcons, who are now, like wine, much better with age. That combination will be ‘lethal’.
The Nigerian girls in Montreal were spectacular. They displayed all the typical characteristics of Nigerian male players and more – physical strength, mental toughness, athleticism, great skills and (their greatest asset) uncommon fighting spirit. This team can play with such power and pace that most opposition will find it hard to deal with. They will play as if possessed with some spirit, fighting and contesting for every ball as if their lives depended on it.
With a little bit of improvement in the technical area, the girls will be ready to take on the world and do what the men have failed to do – win the World Cup for the first time.
That way, Walter Winterbottom’s prediction half a Century ago, and Pele’s, a little bit later, would finally be fulfilled.
Well done magnificent Falconets!