Around the World in Women's Soccer: Nigeria's Super Falcons
Around the World in Women's Soccer is a series that explores women's soccer in other countries. Each country will get two stories: The first will explore the country's national team, while the second will explore the country's domestic league.
The Nigerian Super Falcons, with their signature green-and-white jerseys, should be a familiar sight to American soccer fans. Africa's most successful national team is one of just seven teams to compete in every single Women's World Cup, going back to the 1991 tournament in China. They have won the African Women's Cup of Nations eleven times, with their most recent title coming in 2018. (The biennial tournament should have been played again this past summer, but it was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic). They are the only African team to have reached the quarterfinals in both the Women's World Cup (1999) and the Olympics (2012).
But their success has been weighed down by a lack of support from their own federation, from potential sponsors and from the international community. In 2017, the Super Falcons didn't play a single game. The federation said that there was "no need to disengage" players from their clubs because Nigeria "had nothing at stake" that year. The truth is that they had a coaching vacancy-- Florence Omagbemi's contract expired at the end of 2016-- that didn't get filled until January 2018.
The situation started to improve under Head Coach Thomas Dennerby, a Swedish coach and former player who had managed the Swedish women's national team from 2005 to 2012. Nigeria held onto the African Women's Cup of Nations title, and the team played more friendlies and international competitions leading up to the 2019 Women's World Cup. For many players, it seemed like this tournament might be the one that changed everything.
The team made it out of the group stage -- a massive accomplishment in a group that included South Korea, Norway and France. But they didn't stand a chance against Germany in the Round of 16 and ultimately lost the game 3-0. Dennerby resigned in October 2019, and the team has been without a head coach since.
Without a head coach, the team failed to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. They were defeated in the third round of the 2020 Confederation of African Football qualifiers by the Ivory Coast (Cote D'Ivoire). Fortunately, the federation is expected to announce a new technical director later this week and a new head coach shortly thereafter. Hopefully, the announcements will give the team a foundation with which to build something lasting.
When you look beyond the federation issues that Nigeria has faced, there is an immense amount of talent on their team. They are captained by Asisat Oshoala, a 25-year-old striker who plays for FC Barcelona. She played in the 2019 UEFA Women's Champions League final against Lyon, where she scored Barca's lone goal in their 4-1 defeat. She has been named the African women's footballer of the year four times (most recently, in 2019), and she scored critical goals for the Super Falcons in the 2019 Women's World Cup and the 2020 CAF Olympic qualifiers.
In addition to players like Oshoala and Francisca Ordega, whom NWSL fans will remember from her three-year stint with the Washington Spirit, the Nigerian national team also has a lot of young talent. On their most recent roster, eleven out of eighteen players were under the age of 25. Many of those players are in Nigeria's domestic league, while some are playing abroad in countries like Portugal and Spain.
"I've never been somewhere where everybody talks about football and the games. Everybody knows about football," Dennerby said after he signed on to coach the Super Falcons. "Football is life in Nigeria."
Nigeria isn't just a country with a lot of potential. It is a national team that has managed to succeed year after year, despite players not being paid bonuses on time, despite not having consistent friendlies and camps, despite not having a consistent head coach. They deserve better from their federation and from the world.