Over the next few months, Unusual Efforts plans to celebrate the achievements of the teams at the first Women’s World Cup. Part One of the journey the Nigeria women took to China ‘91 can be found here.
Today we bring you Part II, featuring reflections from the Super Falcons team that traveled to China, as well as a look at where they are now.
A hero’s send-off?
“The women helped a lot,” Nkiru Okosieme divulged. “I remember preparatory tournaments, one in Ghana, we had an issue with funds. We didn’t even have jerseys to wear.”
“There was a feeling that, because of the importance attached to Nigeria’s first ever World Cup, top female government officials and philanthropists, including the former First Lady of Nigeria, Late Mrs. Miriam Babagida, pulled their weight to support the ladies, both in training and with other assistance.’’
Okosieme continued, “We were given handover jerseys from the lower national teams but Miriam Babangida intervened with Late Abiola’s wife and we used a military aircraft to execute the game. We didn’t even use the regular aircraft to go to Ghana.”
But for such a landmark achievement, the Super Falcons’ journey to China went largely unheralded.
“No carnival. No jamboree. No major send forth. The NFA wished us farewell, but it was not like when the male teams go for such [tournaments].”
From kickoff to the final whistle in a few short sentences
The 1991 competition lasted from November 16 – November 30, allowing just two weeks for the Falcons to battle the rest of the world in China.
“The competition was exciting and most of us were intrigued; thrilled that we were going to represent our country so I’m not sure we understood the magnitude. We desperately had something to prove. It was in ‘95 I think we really understood what it was all about.” Okosieme remarked.
So maybe that explains why in Group C, the Falcons lost all three games, to Germany, Italy, and Chinese Taipei, conceding seven and scoring none.
A crestfallen Rita Nwadike revealed what stunned the team.
“We believed we could make it but when we got there, what we saw was something different. We were surprised that these teams had started playing before us and were advanced in the game so when we lost, even though we know this was the first time, we weren’t happy especially thinking about what Nigerians back home will say.”
Small Town Girls, Uptown China
China certainly produced a culture shock for many of the ladies.
“I had been exposed to travelling a lot so I was used to many things but the others were mostly coming from home so, we didn’t enjoy their food.” Chioma Ajunwa disclosed.
“You’ll see something that looks like a frog, lizard as their protein, but to us, we were used to beef, chicken so seeing that was a big shock. Their scented rice for example was okay to me but the others did not like it. Throughout, it was all complaints.’ Ajunwa was not too impressed.
Okosieme, laughing, shared her memories.
“I can eat most of their food now but then, they could serve you cooked rice with chicken and usually, our chicken is seasoned with salt, but theirs tasted like it was seasoned with sugar. It was an anticlimax because looking at it up close, it made you salivate. Even some had smells that weren’t all that savoury.”
“People like Rita [Nwadike] weren’t eating and so I told her ‘You better learn to eat it. Do you want to starve to death?’ So she’ll ask to be served with plain rice so she could manage it.”
Nwadike however, played down her reaction.
“Most of us hadn’t travelled out of the country before and even if we did, we hadn’t gone that far. Their food is no different from what we ate in Holland (where we went for novelty matches) but they use lots of garlic in their meals and some people can’t stand it so had to manage.”
The people there stared at us as if we were coming from the moon. They were not used to us so they’ll sneak up and poke us, and then run back.
It wasn’t all fun and laughs. Ajunwa claims a teammate intentionally injured her in training two days before one of the fixtures, to rule her out of the team because she was viewed as a threat. The coach was livid at having lost a key member of the team. Although Ajunwa would go on to play the tournament, she was not at full strength.“I was very angry.”
Most didn’t admit to having made friends with players from other countries, saying movement was restricted to avoid distractions, but Ajunwa, who felt inclined to prove her worth after her injury setback had a different view.
“I did, but I didn’t keep contact. I made a friend from Germany, their captain. I had given her a tough time on the pitch. She walked up to me in the cafeteria afterwards and we exchanged addresses but I wasn’t seeing what she wrote because her English wasn’t so clear.”
On a happier note, Okosieme revealed an amusing story on the team’s quest to find the perfect man. Sorry, shoes!
“We went shopping at some point because before we left, we were supposed to attend a gala night in China. The Federation had prepared our travel clothes which were a green suit, cream coloured skirt and a gown. But for some reason, they didn’t bring shoes for us. So we had our canvas and looked ridiculous wearing a suit, skirt and canvas. “
Canvas, by the way, is how most Nigerians refer to football boots.
“For the gala night, we had to wear our traditional gowns and there was no way we would spot a gown with canvas so we went shopping with the coach, Jo Bonfrere. We did not find our sizes! It dawned on us that the Chinese had very small feet and even a regular 38 was considered the biggest size over there. They had to patch us up with some shoes but we suffered long and hard for it.”
The world was a whole lot smaller 25 years ago, so what were people’s reactions to seeing faces from the famous Africa?
“The people there stared at us as if we were coming from the moon. They were not used to us so they’ll sneak up and poke us, and then run back. They were really funny characters. But it was ‘91; most hadn’t been exposed to blacks so seeing us was like a movie,” said Ajunwa.
Off the Pitch
The girls had only a sketchy idea of what they’d earned, admitting it was a long time ago.
“We were given $1500 after qualifying,” said Nwadike.
“Camp allowances then was about $10, not so sure,” Ajunwa estimated.
“I cannot remember. 25 years is such a long time. I’m not that detailed – maybe $500.” Okosieme added.
Clearly there wasn’t much money available but for young girls with mammoth dreams, any kobo, or penny, was just about enough.
“We didn’t have jerseys, just one each. In fact, the jerseys are really not yours so after a game, you go back and wash the jerseys and ensure they are dry ahead of the next game. Who did you think will do the laundry for you? It was many world cups later that people were assigned to do laundry for us,” Nwadike remembered.
But there was one thing they could all recall, pretty emphatically, were the pre-match rituals. Or THE popular ritual.
“We prayed a lot. Before we played, we’ll gather for a prayer. We’ll even observe a fast if necessary.” Nwadike said.
I enjoyed my career but after football, what do you do?
Despite the losses, the girls regarded themselves as comrades. It seems strange that with a bunch of young ladies thrown together, most for the first time, that there wasn’t any division within the team. Most of the players reckoned that, this having been the first time at a World Cup, everyone wanted to maintain a high level of professionalism…with the exception of one very angry lady.
“Ahh!” Ajunwa exclaims. “Nkechi Mbilitam. She played as an attacker. Any little thing, she’ll flare up. If you didn’t pass to her, trouble. If your pass failed to reach her, trouble. She’ll scream ‘But I was there! I was there!!’ As a young team, we were not all that perfect so, she was just like that.”
Omo Love Branch was widely regarded as the funniest teammate. The defender was said to be the life of the party, always cracking them up at every point – although the “prankster” label belonged to Patience Avre. Unfortunately, her teammates stayed quiet about the pranks she pulled!
Number 1 shot-stopper Ann Chiejine had plenty of talents off the pitch as well. The current Super Falcons assistant coach is also known to be handy at hairdressing and tailoring.
Happily ever after?
After the World Cup, Chioma Ajunwa, who felt she was one of the team favorites, claimed internal dissension and envy eventually froze her out of the squad. At the time, Ajunwa was an established track and field athlete, so her inclusion in the football team may have felt like a threat to some others, especially as she had various sources of income to draw upon.
Ajunwa said game time was hard to come by after ’91 and so opted to quit the national team in 1994. Two years later, her first jump at Atlanta ’96 earned her Olympic Gold in Long Jump and, while she obviously remembers her days with the Super Falcons, does not regret walking away.
“The way we worship our male teams, if they can give just half to the women, they’ll do even more.”
Nkiru Okosieme tarried with the team but it came at a cost. Captain in ‘91, she was stripped of the armband three years later, with the striker pointing fingers at authorities who couldn’t handle her outspoken nature. The FA played a part in much of the decision making, including team selection, and such external forces could see one player dropped for another. This did not sit well with Okosieme. Florence Omagbemi, the current Super Falcons coach, took over the captaincy.
After the failed campaign in China, Ismaila Mabo was reinstated to the coaching staff and has ensured his name remains synonymous with Nigerian women’s football. He is unarguably the most successful coach for the African amazons, taking them to their first-ever World Cup knockout stage appearance, the furthest an African team has reached. In the quarterfinals in 1999, the Falcons lost to Brazil in added time, thanks to a golden goal.
And where are they now?
Chioma Ajunwa, now Chioma Okpara, is a Chief Superintendent in the Nigerian Police Force, a rank she is immensely proud of as a woman serving in the force for around 26 years. She is also happily married and the mother of triplets! If that weren’t enough, she runs the Chioma Ajunwa Foundation, which aims to educate youth on the ills of drug indulgence and abuse, a matter close to her heart after being banned by WADA for doping, a path that almost cost her her career.
Nkiru Okosieme is now lives in the United States, making her home in Georgia, and, in addition to her work as an IT Professional, is a coach She organises sport clinics, trainings, soccer summer camps and is involved with the Olympic Developmental Programme.
Rita Nwadike is currently the assistant coach of Nigeria’s most successful club side, Rivers Angels. She has overseen the nurturing and development of many young footballers, a feat she holds very dear and thanks God for.
“But if there was one thing I wish I could have done, it’s to be a businesswoman. I enjoyed my career but after football, what do you do? I always wish I could cater to a business venture. That’s my only regret.”
At 72, Coach Ismaila Mabo remains ever strong and is still coaching the Jos Stars Football Academy, which he founded.
Golden Jubilee Celebration on the cards?
Okosieme said, “When you have some women of substance who will push things, who will give you the support like Princess Jegede also did with providing us with equipment, kit, jerseys, funds, it does help a lot.”
“The Female team has been the one cleaning Nigeria’s face,” a local saying meaning rescuing a bit of national pride, worldwide, “and they have never been treated well, I don’t know if it is our culture. Seriously, I am not even exaggerating! The way we worship our male teams, if they can give just half to the women, they’ll do even more.” concluded Ajunwa.
Bottom line, the FA cannot do it all. Women have to support their own to thrive.
Maybe that’s what we need. Maybe that’s what we’ve been missing. In recent times, the Super Falcons have been only a shadow of their former self. Results are less inspiring, displays unconvincing.
It’s a huge credit to other African teams who are stepping up to the challenge, but one gets the feeling that with such a vast talent of players, some plying their trade abroad, the Falcons fall a tad short of overtaking their predecessors, who tilled the ground for the status the country holds. It can’t be down to the players alone. The support cast (the FA, welfare, coaching, league credibility, the media, other organisations, Nigerians as a whole) are to blame.
But this is not the time to point fingers, or sulk in the fear of a future unknown. The Falcons who traveled to the first Women’s World Cup should instill hope, breed change, and make us fall in love again with the women’s game. The beautiful game. Remember it put us on the road to history and greatness. So now, it’s better to celebrate
Hopefully, when I revisit this piece for the golden jubilee sequel, it will be with a smile – and a Super Falcons World Cup title to boot.
Until then, I’ll be sure I enjoy “our 25” for another 11 months. You should too.