Super Falcons’ slipping African crown does not inspire World Cup hope
If there was one thing the just concluded Africa Women’s Cup of Nations proved, it is that Nigeria’s claim to the throne is no longer as uncontested as it once was.
Where the Super Falcons initially held the rest of the continent comfortably at arm’s length in women’s football, the gap is now a lot narrower. The eight-time champions needed successive penalty shoot-outs to emerge triumphant in Ghana last month, following barren draws against both Cameroon and South Africa.
It highlighted, rather eloquently, the sad reality that, while the rest of the continent has strived to narrow the gap, success has lured Nigeria into a state of intoxicated complacency. The sum of the interest shown in the Falcons in the last year by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) was the appointment of Swede Thomas Dennerby, as though that alone was all that would be needed.
As it turns out, there was very little time for any sort of cogent preparation, and barely any work on the training ground, yet the team got by pretty much by its wits. Sometimes, one wonders whether the inimitable, indomitable Nigerian spirit which drives these unfathomable successes is not as much a curse as it is a blessing.
Interestingly, while it has worked for the Falcons on the continent, the World Cup has always proved a whole other matter. There, unable to assert any fear factor, they have been swiftly shot down through the years.
Nigeria is the only African team to have played in all of the Women’s seven World Cup tournaments since 1991 but they have failed to translate their continental dominance on the world stage.
Their best performance came when reaching the quarter-finals in 1999, but they have had their wings clipped since that lofty height – by failing to come out of the group stage in subsequent tournaments in 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015.
The 2019 edition, to be hosted by France, will likely be no different. If that seems overly pessimistic, then maybe the diagnosis from Dennerby, who following the draw revealed he is banking on the team’s physical advantages, might be more heart-warming. In any case, Nigeria is drawn with the hosts, Norway and Korea Republic in Group A.
Beyond all the bluster however, this is a group that is fraught with danger. Norway has a record of success going back to the mid-to-late 90s, a period in which they won a World Cup and an Olympic gold medal. Incidentally, en route to that World Cup triumph in 1995, they hammered Nigeria 8-0 in the Group Stage, and have only gone from strength to strength since then.
Korea Republic are relative newbies, having only qualified twice previously for the World Cup. They will, however, pose a threat: Asian nations have a strong tradition in women’s football, and the Koreans surprised many by progressing past the Group Stage last time out.
Of the lot, it is France who will give the Falcons the most to think about, if only because of their most recent meeting. Both teams met earlier in the year in a friendly, Nigeria’s first game in over an entire year. It proved an ill-advised move, as Les Bleues inflicted an 8-0 mauling on the occasion of Dennerby’s first match in charge.
The challenge, clearly, is a daunting one. If the Falcons are to come through unscathed and with any credibility, they will need to show more than they did at the AWCON. There, the team was lethargic, uncoordinated and did not give the impression they are a tournament side. As such, there is little from which hope can be drawn as things stand.
That could change, however, if the NFF back up their hot air in the aftermath of the AWCON victory. More is required of them, at this time, than empty promises and lip service. For their part, South Africa has a program of warm-up games already published, and their itinerary for the coming year has been finalised.
Having made the decision to stick with Desiree Ellis at the helm of Banyana Banyana, the South African FA backed her aggressively, giving her all the tools required to succeed. There was some fascination in Ghana over the fact that the team had their own video analyst, recording their games in order to aid training and spot areas of improvement. That’s how far they are willing to go, and they are pulling out all the stops.
It is incumbent on the NFF to imbibe a new seriousness. If it was not already clear, even on the continent where the Falcoms have always held sway, the competition is closer than ever. How much more will it be on the world stage?
It may have been 24 years since Nigeria suffered her worst-ever defeat at a World Cup, but as the France friendly in April showed, there is still more than enough scope for disgrace if the NFF and coach Dennerby do not get their acts together before the summer of 2019.