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‘Women should break barrier of self-doubt’

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Desire

Desire Oparanozie is professional footballer and philanthropist, who holds a degree in Entrepreneurship and Emerging Economy from Harvard Business School. The France-based striker for Dijon FC kicked off her career with Bayelsa Queens in the Nigerian Women’s league. Her fine performances, coupled with her debut in the FIFA under 20s World cup 2010 and then the 2012 edition, opened the doors for her European career journey. Oparanozie went on to play in Turkey, Russia, and Germany. She’s currently in France where she has spent six years with Guingamp FC before joining her new club, Dijon FC. A significant part of the Super Falcons (Nigeria Women’s senior team), she has won four Africa Women’s Championships in 2010, 2014, 2016 and 2018 and played in three FIFA World Cup tournaments (2011, 2015 and 2019). The 27-year-old Imo-state born player equally received the Golden boot award in the 2014 African Championships.

Off the field of play, she launched the Desire Oparanozie Foundation in July 2019, using football and education as a tool to inspire young girls. She was also appointed an Environmental Ambassador for Imo State in 2019. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her career journey and passion for football.

What endeared you to football?
Growing up, I found myself playing football, running around the streets with boys on bare foot, without shirt. It is something I grew up doing; it didn’t require extra training or extra push. I don’t know if it is safe to say it is something I was born to do. It was more of passion for me, the pleasure I derive each time I am doing it. It’s all about the excitement and the fulfilment it came with.

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What specific challenges did you face choosing football as a career path and how did your family react to it?
It is mostly the same story for every girl child born in Africa. They will tell you football is not a feminine sport; you are going to grow muscles and you will look like a guy. I got a lot of that from my family to the extent that they even burnt my clothes so that I wouldn’t have what to wear to play football again. I was spanked a couple of times, but still I would go back to playing football on the streets. With all the stubbornness I displayed, my father was the first to see reasons with me and so, he came all out to support my career and that was how the rest of my family gave in and backed me.

I played more football during school break period and when there are organised school sports events. But after school hours, when I get home, I still want to play on the streets. When I found out an amateur female club team then in Owerri, I started training with them after school hours and that was a major problem with my family. I wouldn’t do the dish, which was my responsibility at the time. Instead, I would run out to play football; that’s the reason I get beaten at times.

At what point did you choose football as a career path?
After my WAEC, I had left home and having played in the amateur league for some time, we travelled to play for another local league in Kaduna. From there, Bayelsa Queens saw me and enrolled me into their team; the coach at the time, Rolanson, put me in the Bayelsa Feeder Team. That was how I got called up to be on the National Team (under 17); that was how my breakthrough happened.

From when you started till now, have you seen an improvement in female football, especially around Owerri as you have referred to its female team as amateur?
Not really, because that team, after that time we went to play for that amateur league, didn’t exist anymore because of lack of funds.

It was an individual team and there was no support from the government. So, that is to tell you how things are not progressing back home.

Even in the state, Heartland Queens Football Club, we don’t have a female football team at the moment. That’s to tell you how bad things are back home. So, we need more support from corporate bodies, individuals as well as the government, because this is also a means of employment for the youths.

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How do you intend to use your foundation to address some of these issues you raised?
Sure, the foundation will to an extent, with the support of well meaning Nigerians and the government. That’s the whole point; to encourage the girl-child and lead them to the positive path to life and encourage them to be good citizens. It doesn’t have to be football; it could a different career path. Either a different sport or profession, but then, it is just to let them understand that whatever career path they want to choose, there is need for education. They should pursue their dreams and not pay attention to all the negative facts accompanied with the female child in our own part of the world where they think there should be limits to what you can achieve.

So, because of Heartland Queens Football Club,, we are trying not to do something very elaborate that would be contradicting the protocols, so, we will be giving educational materials and providing with students with Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) education, which is a basic skill young people should know. This is done across the three geo-political zones in the state and we work with schools, because I stand for education as basis to any career path

What specific challenges have you faced as a female footballer?
One of the challenges is how female footballers are stereotyped; people make negative comments about your looks because of the muscular physic. There is also discrepancy in terms of payroll; the male team earns more and are given preferential treatments when the female team works twice as hard. Another thing is that when you try to stand up for what you believe in, people tend to look down on you, talk down on your opinion because you are female. People should learn to be more sensitive about our feelings as humans, and try to appreciate what we are doing and know that it is not easy.

What was it like leading Super Falcons as Captain, what stood you out?
It hasn’t been easy; it was a lot of hard work and I gave my best at every camp and every tournament. Having been honoured with that responsibility of leading the team, it charged me to continuously do more till I left in 2010. I ensured to treat everyone equally, listen to their thoughts and gave everyone a chance to add their quota; that for me is leadership. The Super Falcons team is the best in Africa.

Even if you put the male and female teams together, no team has won as much trophies as we have and it is such an honour to lead the team on the world stage. I am happy that I worked well with everyone on the team.

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Transiting from playing in a local league to an international scene, share with us your experience?
The first time I left the shores of Nigeria, I was excited having my dreams come through. However, the weather was a huge challenge.

The first country I played with its professional team was Russia; Russia is very cold, unlike other parts of Europe where the weather is manageable. Coming from a Sub-sahara African country where it is extremely hot to an extremely cold country, I didn’t know what to expect before going so that was a challenge. Also, their culture, language, the food and leaving home at a very young age, all to myself with no family… it was hard at first, so I was home-sick a couple of times that I cried and soaked my pillow in tears.

But judging from where I was coming from, I knew that this was just a stepping-stone. So, I persevered and held on to my beliefs and I knew that was just the beginning. Lucky enough, I was able to go through the difficulties and since then, I have been to other countries and settled in well in Europe. I have been in France for seven years now and it is now like my second home, although it has not been easy.

Also, in all the leagues I played in Europe, none of them speak English. So, I have had to deal with language barriers.

I was in Turkey, but I had to leave after a three months stay because the level of their league was below standard for me.

You have your name to a Bus Stop in France, how does that make you feel?
It is an honour, it is not easy being recognised; it shows that I am being appreciated here. Little things that you think are not important matter a lot to a whole lot of people. Sometimes, it brings me to tears compared to where I am coming from; this kind of recognition means a lot to me.

What advice do you have for young girls who want to take up football as a career path?
First of all, identify what you want to do and work towards it. Make sure that you are passionate about your career path because that passion will spur you to do your best and achieve more. Also, get an education because it is necessary in your career path. Most important is being consistent with your efforts; it doesn’t matter how little you put in, ensure you are moving and do not let side distractions pull you back from chasing your goals.

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What keeps you going and what is the future of football for you?
One thing is the fear of failure; I want to come out tops in my career. My philosophy has always been taking life one day at a time, so whenever I am on the field, I try to give in my best regardless of tomorrow. It is still very bright, we haven’t seen the best yet; there is still a lot to achieve and improve on. I hope to still take on football and be here in the future even if not active, but cheering from the sideline.

What will you tell women who seem to lose focus on their goal in life?
First of all, we should learn from one another. There are women out there who are killing it, who are breaking barriers. If those women could achieve it, we also can achieve anything. Our first challenge is self- doubt; the moment we begin to have doubts, we would limit ourselves. Don’t limit yourself, explore, try to dream big and put it in some efforts to achieve it. It might not come overnight, but keep pushing for it; don’t stay stagnant. Why should we be thinking of being First Ladies when we can be presidents? We should erase that mindset and push for what we deserve.

Would you say you are fulfilled in your career and what do you do outside the field?
Yes, I would say I am. I have learnt to celebrate my small victories; whatever comes tomorrow would be a plus. When I am not on the football field, I am doing a lot of studying and research; I have classes on sports education. I’m also working on an English test coming up next month. I am also preparing for my admission to study Business and Sports Management at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom.

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