Over the next few months, Unusual Efforts plans to celebrate the achievements of the teams at the first Women’s World Cup. Today we bring you Part I, a first look at the Nigeria Super Falcons and their path to China ’91.
Birthday reflections and the road to celebrating the Super Falcons…
It was a few hours to my new age and I was extremely nervous. I had never been 25 before! I was halfway to 50. I reflected on my personal life, on my career. What would come of the next 25 years?
I’d spent the day imprisoned by these thoughts, but shook them off to party away my 24th year with friends that night. Just then, it hit me. Many milestones go unheard, unnoticed, unknown. But some things deserve celebration.
My birthday and the Nigerian football team, the ones who represented their country at China ‘91.
Nigeria is a country celebrated for many reasons, including having the best jollof rice (even if our eternal rivals, the Ghanaians, claim to cook it better), but football is inarguably one of HER greatest exports. We are born immersed in it; we continue life absorbed in it, with kicks-about at home, in school, on the streets. If you’re way more genius than the rest, ka-Ching! A career beckons.
With such a love for football, it was quite a surprise that the most populous black nation in the world didn’t make her debut at the World Cup for 64 years.
Scratch that, I’ll take it again.
Despite the tournament’s expansion in 1982, supposedly to include more teams from Africa, the Nigerian men’s senior national team didn’t qualify for the quadrennial Mundial until 1994. It was a bit of bummer.
But this is where history lies: The first national team to represent the country in her first World Cup at senior level did so in 1991. The Super Falcons, the Nigeria senior women’s national team, participated in the first-ever Women’s World Cup, in China.
They have not missed a World Cup since, one of only seven teams – the others are the United States, Japan, Brazil, Norway, Sweden and Germany – not to miss out on all seven editions.
To give you a sneak peak, the Falcons are nine-time champions of the African Women’s Championship, the most successful African team in history – yes, they have been better even than the Egyptian men, with their seven continental championships.
The men, meanwhile, have won the Africa Cup of Nations just three times in the past 59 years. In terms of dominance, the Nigeria women are like the USWNT of Africa; utterly dominant and never short of talent. Talents such as Florence Omagbemi, Mercy Akide, Perpetua Nkwocha and more recently, Asisat Oshoala.
Hence, as I celebrated the big 25, I got members of the China ‘91 team, including Chioma Ajunwa, Rita Nwadike, Nkiru Okosieme and Coach Ismaila Mabo, to celebrate alongside (unfortunately not singing karaoke at the bar with me), a team largely forgotten but fondly remembered as the pacesetters by those who hold the game dear, a team deserving of a glistening silver jubilee.
In The Beginning…
The first World Cup was held in Uruguay in 1930 but because the men had established the sport as theirs, it took 61 years for the women to get their shot at a tournament. Africa played a key role.
The first African Women’s Championship took place in 1991 and determined the single African qualifier for the World Cup. Of the eight teams billed to participate, about half of them withdrew, likely due to monetary reasons, though it’s probable some simply believed such an investment would only lead to regrets. Four were left to battle it out. Nigeria became the eventual winner, defeating Ghana 7-2 on aggregate in the semis and eventually ousting Cameroon 6-0 in the final.
For 45-year-old Chioma Ajunwa, a utility player who would eventually go on to claim Olympic Gold in the long jump in 1996, being a pioneer was more than enough:
It was such an interesting one, football as a career and going on to represent your country at the World Cup is the best thing that could happen to anybody. It was great to know that my speed and talent as well as being good on foot helped the team in its quest.
But it was far from rosy. In Nigeria at the time, women were generally judged to be fit for domestic chores around the house. If a woman insisted on participating in a sport, then there were a few considered slightly acceptable. Table Tennis, Judo, Handball, and Track & Field readily come to mind. Certainly not football.
“Men came to watch us out of curiosity. When we do certain things, they’ll go ‘Wow! They can play!”
“I had this tournament I had to go play,” Okosieme recounts. “My coach had to come meet my father for permission even though my dad was an ex-footballer and a coach as well. My dad said no. He insisted that women don’t play football. He sent the coach away. I guess football was seen as a predominantly male sport.”
“Even to go source for funds, a proposed sponsor once told me ‘Women! Play football? Go to the kitchen. That’s what you do.’ It was unthinkable at the time.”
Unthinkable yes, so why did the nation ‘think’ about putting a national women’s football team together in the first place?
“As ladies, we were already under YSFON (Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria) as athletes. Though the YSFON was recognised by the NFA (Nigeria Football Association), the FA wasn’t even taking women’s football serious,” disclosed Okosieme.
“It all happened when Tony Eke, the general secretary in charge of youth football at the time, took some boys to compete in a tournament in Sweden and Norway. There he saw women participating in football and so, he quickly came home to establish women over here to play the game. When the World Cup qualifiers came around, it was now easy for the NFA to assemble a squad from here and some existing clubs.”
In good stead, Nigeria made history and it spread like wildfire. The team was comprised of players from different regions, spread out across a pretty big country, so when they did gather to play, capacity crowds were recorded. Mostly men attended the games to see if truly, these women could do it.
Nkiru Okosieme, 44, who holds the joint World Cup African goalscorer record alongside compatriot Rita Nwadike and current Cameroon sensation, Gaelle Enganamouit, was glad for the entertainment men derived from watching 22 women kick one ball around.
“Men came to watch us out of curiosity. When we do certain things, they’ll go ‘Wow! They can play!” Okosieme let out with a laugh.
“I was too small, still in college but my talent got me into the squad after more than a hundred ladies screened for the national team. I was one of youngest.” Rita Nwadike revealed.
The bright-eyed 17-year-old was eager to make an impression on the world stage. A striker, Nwadike deservedly holds the joint record for the most goals scored in a World Cup by an African, two at Sweden ‘95 and one in USA’ 99 at which she could not conceal her joy. Nostalgic throughout our conversation, she dished out on how grand the occasion was for them personally, but also noted that almost nothing was expected of them in China.
The journey itself was not short on drama and wrangling. One of the biggest twists occurred when the coaching staffs were re-jigged for the World Cup.
Former Super Falcons’ coach Ismaila Mabo revealed that the FA had dropped him and the Head Coach at the time, Paul Hamilton, despite their having qualified the team to the nation’s first ever senior World Cup appearance. In their place the FA had installed an expatriate, to take the team to China.
“Jo Bonfrere was the assistant coach to Clemens Westerhof, the Super Eagles technical adviser. After preparing the team, the FA decided to get the expatriate, meaning we missed out on China 91,” Mabo explained.
“Our girls lacked the experience. They did not win any match. That didn’t upset us (being dropped) because we were not discouraged so, when they came back, the FA decided to continue with us. In fact, Jo Bonfrere abandoned the team and headed straight to his homeland, Holland after their exit. “
Subsequently, we were able to work with the team and get them to conquer Africa again and qualify for Sweden ’95. This time, I was part of the coaching staff in Sweden as the assistant Coach. It was when we came back from Sweden 95, that I was made the Head Coach.
Nigeria doesn’t take defeat that well, not even defeat by the women, who were largely regarded as second fiddles. But the FA surprisingly didn’t set much of a bar.
“At the World Cup, the Germans, Canadians and Norwegians were there and these are the countries that had started playing before us so, much wasn’t expected and if Nigerians did expect much, they didn’t show it because if they did, that would have been unfair,” Chioma Ajunwa remarked.
Expectations may have been low, but did the Super Falcons rise above them? What was their experience in at the first Women’s World Cup? And where are the stars of China ’91 now? Read on for Part II!