Around the World in Women's Soccer: NWFL Premiership
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.
Nigeria has been a force in international women's soccer dating back to the first Women's World Cup in 1991. In the last 30 years, they have become the most successful women's program in Africa. But their success isn't limited to the international stage. Nigeria has also had a domestic women's soccer championship for about 30 years that has produced world-class talent.
The NWFL Premiership is the latest iteration of a competition that has been played in some form since 1990. Earlier this year, league president Aisha Falode announced a rebranding that included a new logo and new names for the three tiers of leagues that fall under the NWFL umbrella. The 2020 season was cancelled in Nigeria due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but when the league resumes play, the NWFL Premiership will be the top tier, the NWFL Championship will be the second tier, and the NWFL Nationwide will be the third tier.
In addition to the league, clubs also play in the Aiteo Cup and the Nigeria Women's Super Cup, also known as the NWFL Champions Shield. While the Aiteo Cup is Nigeria's equivalent of an FA Cup, the NWFL Champions Shield is a single match between the winner of the NWFL Premiership and the Aiteo Cup that marks the beginning of the new season.
Historically, Pelican Stars FC has been the most successful club in Nigeria. Based in Calabar, they have won seven league titles and six Aiteo Cup titles. But they have not won a league title since 2010 and have not won an Aiteo Cup title since 2002.
More recently, Rivers Angels FC have dominated. Based out of Port Harcourt, they have won six league titles and eight Aiteo Cup titles. They are the reigning champions of the NWFL Premiership, and they have won three titles in the last five years. They have also won three Aiteo Cup titles in the last five years, although in 2019 they were runners-up to the Nasarawa Amazons.
Nigeria's national team is a mix of players from the domestic league and players spread through leagues around the world. Many of their most successful players are with clubs in Europe, but they all started with clubs in Nigeria. Asisat Oshoala, who currently plays for FC Barcelona and captains the Nigerian WNT, spent three years with River Angels FC before transferring to Liverpool. Francisca Ordega came up with the Bayelsa Queens and spent a year with River Angels FC before she left the domestic league.
One of the biggest goals in Nigeria for both the domestic league and the national team is to create more grassroots involvement. The popularity of women's soccer is growing as the teams become more visible and play more consistent matches. Aisha Falode, who has been league president since 2017, wants to make that sustainable and create connections with young girls throughout the country.
"Introduce the game to the girls when they're young and interest would be more and the participation will grow," Falode said prior to the 2019 Women's World Cup. "If we can do that it would really also change the face of the game totally for the young girls."
"But then how do you sustain it without funding? How do you sustain it without a proper governing structure for it?" Falode added. "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?"
Nigeria's domestic league has come a long way under Falode's leadership and the future for domestic women's soccer in Nigeria seems bright. Hopefully, the federation, sponsors, and other forces within the country will rise to offer their support so that their success can be sustained for generations to come.