Victory in their Round of 16 clash with England on Monday will rank the Class of 2023 as the most successful Senior Women National Team of Nigeria, as the squad would have achieved a first-ever knock-out stage win at football’s highest platform.
When the Class of 1999 reached the quarter finals in the United States, the tournament was a 16-team event and they made the last eight straight from the group phase, following wins over North Korea and Denmark. Following the expansion to 24 teams, before this 32-team format, a team must negotiate a Round of 16 to reach the quarter-finals.
At the team meeting before the final Group B clash with Republic of Ireland at the now-familiar Lang Park, Coach Randy Waldrum had a sheet hidden under his instruction paper on the small board as he spoke to his charges. After the instructions, he unveiled the hidden sheet to reveal the amount of $60,000 – what each player would be receiving as prize money for reaching the Round of 16. The players roared.
The American is likely to do the same at Monday’s pre-match meeting, with the figure a more handsome $90,000!
Another motivation for Monday’s game is that the opposition is England – the team that stopped the Super Falcons reaching the last eight in Sweden in 1995. This was four years before they made it in America.
Nigeria’s star player Asisat Oshoala will surely be keen to play a huge part in this. England’s defender and captain, Millie Bright, whom the Barcelona Feminine forward will be duelling with on Monday evening, is a fellow Ballon d’Or nominee like Oshoala.
Oshoala also watched another nominee and Spain’s star-girl, Aitana Bonmati score twice as La Roja eclipsed Switzerland 5-1 in the tournament’s first Round of 16 clash on Saturday.
On Monday, Nigeria will be eager to get quickly off the blocks with midfield anchors Christy Ucheibe and Halimatu Ayinde, and attacking midfielder Rasheedat Ajibade obviously in the form of their lives.
Ucheibe, who excelled in 18 tackles in the group phase, and Ayinde (who had the highest passing accuracy in the match against Australia and won more possession against Republic of Ireland) will form the first line of protection for in-form goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie and defenders Osinachi Ohale, Oluwatosin Demehin, Michelle Alozie and Ashleigh Plumptre.
At the fore, Nigeria could still bank on the energetic Toni Payne, Uchenna Kanu and Oshoala, but there is the possibility that power-charging Desire Oparanozie could see her first minutes in the finals on Monday.
With three African teams making it to the Round of 16 this time, the Falcons realise they have to do something extra to keep their heads above the African rubble.
Morocco became the first African team to win consecutive matches at the Women’s World Cup without conceding a goal when they pipped South Korea and Colombia 1-0 respectively to set up a clash with France. They finished with six points to Nigeria’s five, and helped account for the group stage elimination of two-time champions Germany in the biggest shock of the competition till date.
South Africa’s Banyana Banyana are also supercharged after three credible games, in which they led Sweden before being edged 1-2, led Argentina before ending it at 2-2 and snatched a late winner in a dramatic 3-2 defeat of Italy.
To continue being the team Africa has to look up to, the Super Falcons must come big to the party on Monday, on a familiar turf, and with the words of NFF President Ibrahim Musa Gusau ringing in their ears.
“Our players are highly motivated and collectively ambitious. The match against England is a big one for them and they are keen to turn up on the day. Reaching the quarter-finals is a big possibility and they will go all out for it.”