Rarely is there respite when trying to transform a country’s sporting fortunes. For all the talent, there are the obstacles; for all the expectations, there is the actuality. Global acclaim can seem within touching distance, yet the fingertips are still reaching out over a chasm. Hopes are raised, then shattered. Questions are always asked.
Thomas Dennerby spends hours on the road navigating one of the world’s most sizeable countries. It comes with the territory of being head coach of Nigeria’s women’s football team.
The Swede has become accustomed to getting recognized wherever he goes which, as a white man living in Nigeria, is no surprise, he says. When he makes his way through an airport, he is usually accosted by a security guard or a flight attendant, eagerly asking him about the predominant topic every Nigerian wants to talk to him about: football.
Be it from the young or old, male or female, never before has he experienced such joy, such interest in the beautiful game. It has taken him by surprise, it has tugged at the heartstrings.
“I’ve never been somewhere where everybody talks about football and the games. Everybody knows about football,” Dennerby tells CNN Sport.
“Football is life in Nigeria and they always have the feeling they can beat everybody. They’re full of confidence and the support from the Nigerians is huge. I like that.”
Dennerby, who guided his native Sweden to third place at the 2011 Women’s World Cup, became head coach of Nigeria’s senior women, better known as the Super Falcons, last January. His task is twofold: maintaining Nigeria’s stranglehold on the women’s game in Africa, while developing the team into a world force. Such change won’t happen overnight, he warns, or even in time for next month’s Women’s World Cup.
Selectively chosen statistics would suggest Nigeria is merely a few rungs of a ladder below the world’s best. Nigeria has won the Africa Women Cup of Nations a record nine times – successfully defending their title in the biennial competition since 2014 – and has qualified for every Women’s World Cup. But the higher you climb, the more secure the foundations must be.
Only six other nations have competed in all seven previous editions of the Women’s World Cup, but while those six – U.S, Germany, Norway, Japan, Sweden and Brazil – have either won the competition or reached a final, and all are currently ranked in the top 15 of FIFA’s world rankings, Nigeria has never progressed beyond the quarterfinals.
Ranked No.38 in the world, only four countries competing in France this summer will start the tournament ranked lower in FIFA’s standings, which leads to the question: why has a team which has been so dominant on its own continent not made a bigger mark on the world stage?
2017 – No games and no coach
“Maybe they don’t care about women’s football,” says Asisat Oshoala of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF).
Oshoala, a striker who is expected to be one of the stars in France this summer, is trying to make sense of the last few years; attempting to explain the scarcity of international fixtures. Ambivalence is the only conclusion the Barcelona player feels she can come to, though there are shades of grey to consider, too.
“[Before this year] I’d never played an invitational tournament for my nation before, it was that bad,” she continues.
For Nigeria’s female footballers, there is a sense of what if, of what could have been, were there more investment. After all, a team which rarely plays cannot expect to compete with the likes of three-time world champions the United States.
The Super Falcons did not play at all in 2017. Indeed, the team did not have a coach that year after the contract of Florence Omagbemi – the first woman to win the Africa Women Cup of Nations as both player and coach – expired at the end of the triumphant 2016 campaign and American Randy Waldrum turned down the role in October 2017.
While teammates would pack their bags to meet up with their compatriots during FIFA’s designated international breaks, Oshoala – a three-time African Player of the Year and the first Nigerian to play in a Women’s Champions League final – remained with her parent club, Dalian Quanjian in China, whom she joined in February 2017.
There were no friendlies, no training camps, no opportunities for her and her compatriots to learn, improve and bond.
“If you don’t play games regularly, if you don’t play camps regularly, there’s no way you can bring in a team in one week to play a tournament and expect them to play better than a team that’s been together for a while,” says Oshoala, a player whose talent first turned heads when she won the golden ball and the golden boot at the 2014 Under-20 Women’s World Cup when Nigeria finished runners-up.
“We still tried to make sure we won the last African Cup of Nations, but it was difficult.
“It was really frustrating for me personally and also for the girls as well.
“When I was in China I stayed in China the whole season without traveling to the national team and my teammates were traveling to their national teams all the time. I was like ‘I don’t know what’s going on with my country.’ Every time we tried to speak to the federation they kept giving excuses.”
Mohammed Sanusi, general secretary of the federation, told CNN Sport that there was “no need to disengage” overseas-based players from the services of their clubs as the Super Falcons had “nothing at stake” in 2017.
‘Before we qualified we didn’t have any support’
Much has improved this year, Oshoala admits. The Super Falcons have already played a number of internationals in 2019. During the build up to the 2015 Women’s World Cup the team managed just two warm-up games and eventually finished bottom of an extremely tough group.
“I would say maybe because we qualified for the World Cup and they feel this is the big stage and the girls need to prepare good to make sure they perform well at the world level,” she says, trying to explain the fresh investment in the team.
“But, I mean, it still doesn’t add up. Six months is not enough to perform. It’s obvious, before we qualified we didn’t have any support and after we qualified, out of nowhere, they started to bring in friendly games and saying we should play in invitational tournaments.”
Results have been mixed this year. There have been heavy defeats – 3-0 to China, 4-1 to Austria – yet Dennerby believes progress has been made, specifically because friendly tournaments have allowed the Swede to improve his team’s defense. As if to prove the point, the team scored 23 goals during their run to the West African Football Union (WAFU) Zone B Women’s Cup title earlier this month and conceded only twice.
“The feeling is it’s going to be hard to score against us,” he says. “The federation, the staff, the players want to improve and get closer to the best teams in the world.
“If we can get to the knockout stages this year we will be very happy about that. Maybe we can be a nightmare for our opponents. If they think ‘we can beat Nigeria, they’re only ranked 39’ my opinion, and that’s from the heart, we’re definitely better than the ranking we have.”
Hotel sit-ins, protests and reviews
Once again, the Super Falcons are in a difficult World Cup group. Host France is among the favorites, while Norway and South Korea are ranked inside the world’s top 20. But no matter what the preparations for France 2019, and no matter what the results, Oshoala is determined that this year’s improvements continue.
“Their job is to make sure the team is in shape all the time,” she says of Nigeria’s governing body.
“That’s the right thing to do. No matter what, they’re still going to have to keep putting in the effort and support the female team.
“For me and the girls, the plan is to make sure we speak with the federation maybe after the World Cup and let them understand. I hope we keep together at every international break.”
Oshoala was one of the Super Falcons players who protested outside parliament in Abuja in December 2016 over unpaid win bonuses.
After becoming African champions for an eighth time, the team refused to leave a hotel in the capital until they received win bonuses of $17,150 each – the Super Falcons did the same in 2004 after the federation had failed to pay their bonuses for becoming African champions that year.
Two years ago, with the country in recession, it was the Nigerian government which released a reported $1.2m to the cash-strapped NFF to pay the women’s team.
A review conducted by the federation in 2017 has resulted in improved remuneration for the Super Falcons, according to Sanusi, with basic match bonuses raised to $3,000 per player, while basic bonuses for the men was reduced from $10,000 to $5,000 per player.
‘Vast untapped opportunities’
What will aid the Super Falcons’ cause further is football’s governing body. Last year, FIFA announced a five-pronged global strategy to grow the game, one being to ensure all 211 members have comprehensive women’s plans in place by 2022.
Around the globe women’s football is enjoying increased investment, which is a result of a myriad of reasons, the biggest arguably being societal change (this will be the first tournament since the #MeToo movement), and now sponsors and FIFA are adding their voices.
A total of $11.52 million in preparation money from FIFA will be given to the 24 teams competing in France, while all 211 associations need to show commitment to the women’s game to receive grants.
Theoretically at least, FIFA’s vision for the women’s game should ensure sustained investment in women’s football in Nigeria, a country which has talent at its disposal.
‘Grassroots involvement critical’
Oshoala only started taking football seriously after leaving school, but still developed into one of the many world class talents to emerge from Nigeria’s domestic league, the Nigerian Women Football League (NWFL).
The striker’s path is not an unusual one. The majority of Nigerian girls do not start playing football in a team environment until they reach secondary-age education.
There are a lack of facilities, few academies and not enough international matches played by the age groups below senior level, says Aisha Falode, president of the NWFL.
“Introduce the game to the girls when they’re young and interest would be more and the participation will grow. If we can do that it would really also change the face of the game totally for the young girls,” says Falode, who took up her role as NWFL president in January 2017 because she wanted to “raise the bar” for the country’s female players.
“Grassroots involvement is critical. We really don’t have enough facilities. The football pitches are really few and far. Sometimes, when the players have had to organize a program for young girls the turnout is huge. It’s usually something beautiful, but then how do you sustain it without funding?
“How do you sustain it without a proper governing structure for it? It’s happenstance whatever happens. Where are the summer camps? Where are the summer programs for the young girls who are not in school? How do you engage them? What do you do to bring the game to them to make it popular and acceptable to young girls?”
A sports journalist, Falode is also the sole female on the 15-person NFF executive committee. It is, she admits, sometimes a lonely and frustrating world. But despite the barriers that need to be overcome, there are reasons to be hopeful.
Gradual improvements have been made to the domestic game, she says. The restructured NWPL, the league’s premier division, and both cup competitions – the AITEO Cup and Champions Shield – now provide Nigeria’s best with regular fixtures.
There has also been a noticeable increase in interest in the women’s game from both fans and the media. Female footballers, says Falode, are now on the back pages of newspapers, matches are being broadcast on television and there are sports shows dedicated to the league.
The NWFL has also been liaising with La Liga, receiving advice from the Spanish women’s league – last month a world record crowd of 60, 739 turned out to watch Atletico Madrid take on Barcelona in the Spanish capital – on how to market the women’s game.
Of La Liga’s involvement, Falode says: “They let us know the things we should be doing in terms of strategy and also begin to look at how to create more competition and how to get the men involved in what we are doing in order to make it more acceptable. That is to say that you have to use the face of the men to compliment the women in order for you to get the results the men are getting for your own league.”
Gaining recognition in Nigeria
For all the progress, attracting sponsors to the domestic league has proven to be difficult, says Falode, and women also need to be appointed to decision-making roles – a call echoed by many involved in the women’s game around the world, even FIFA.
“We have made progress from where we were. Where we are now is an indicator where there’s a more cohesive, consistent approach and planning and execution of programs for women’s football, we can grow a culture of huge followership, which perhaps can begin to attract some form of investment and sponsorship,” says Falode.
“It’s the biggest problem because funding is key to even creating competitions and having programs in schools. When you see young girls play, it comes natural to them, they just need the structure to be a world-class player.”
Falode says the Super Falcons are beginning to play “beautiful football” and that the women’s game has “started to register in the consciousness of Nigeria.” The women are not, she says, a “flash in the pan.”
That the Africa Cup of Nations is being held around the same time as the Women’s World Cup has been a bone of contention for those who argue that it will thwart the Super Falcons from taking center stage this summer.
But Falode regards next month’s Women’s World Cup as an opportunity. It could, she says, “turn around the fortunes of women’s football in Nigeria in terms of total acceptability.”
“In our schools, it would also let the young girls know that football is not limited,” she says. “It is limitless the opportunities that can come to the young girl who has the potential and who has the talent to get involved in the game.
“There’s the possibility of becoming whatever you want to become in football. The World Cup will be the biggest platform to create that vision for the young girl, that everything is possible.”