‘An NWSL education’: America’s impact on Nigeria’s women’s team

Ifeoma Onumonu and Toni Payne go back a long way. They knew each other when they were kids, before they even started playing college football, Onumonu for the University of California and Payne at Duke. They played together for the USA Under-23 team in 2017. They dreamed of one day playing at the highest international level, maybe even in the World Cup.

They didn’t think that would happen in Nigerian shirts.

But they are one game away from qualifying for the 2023 World Cup and three wins away from helping the Super Falcons clinch an extraordinary tenth Women’s Africa Cup of Nations title in 12 attempts.

“That’s the craziest part of this sport,” said Onumonu, a forward for New Jersey-based NJ/NY Gotham FC in the National Women’s Soccer League. Athleticism after Nigeria beat Burundi 4-0 in their last group game of the latter tournament.

“You never know where it will take you. We both find ourselves in a place we could not have imagined. It’s crazy how the paths diverge and come together.

Onumonu and Payne, who plays for his soccer club Sevilla in Spain, are two of five US-born players from the Nigerian squad taking part in the tournament in Morocco, under Texas coach Randy Waldrum. The others are Toni’s younger sister Nicole, Houston Dash defender Michelle Alozie and goaltender Yewande Balogun.

Six others – including Leicester-born defender Ashleigh Plumptre – have played in the United States at some point, either in the NWSL or at university, meaning almost half of their squad were born or started an important part of their football training in America.

It is not uncommon for those of African heritage to choose to play for their family’s land rather than the country where they were born. The Moroccan team, for example, includes French, Dutch and English players. Tunisia has French, German and Dutch players. Cameroonian Estelle Johnson grew up in the US state of Colorado and her teammate Michaela Abam was born in Houston, Texas.

But no other team in the WAFCON tournament has as much influence from another nation as Nigeria from the United States.

Waldrum was appointed in 2020, having nearly taken the job in Nigeria three years earlier.

After making a name for himself as a coach in the American college game, winning two national championships, he had three mundane years with Houston Dash in the NWSL.

After that, he was recommended to the Nigerian FA and was even announced as their new coach in 2017. However, it turned out that someone had just gotten a little giddy and the announcement was premature, so he decided not to move and took a job at the University of Pittsburgh, before Nigeria returned two years ago.

Waldrum was of course involved in recruiting some of the players to the Nigerian cause, but that had started before his time.

Toni Payne, for example, came out for her parents’ nation in 2019.

“It’s really an honor,” she said of playing alongside Nicole in Morocco. “It’s not something we thought would ever happen. Obviously our goal is to represent our parents – we’re doing all of this for them, they’re the reason we’re here, and it’s amazing to be part of their story.

Toni Payne, left, is challenged by Michelle Abueng of Botswana during the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix)

Nigeria are the favorites to win this edition of WAFCON, but Waldrum’s tenure hasn’t exactly been smooth so far. The results of their first batch of friendlies were uneven, and it was not ideal that they lost to South Africa in the final of the Aisha Buhari Cup, a six-team invitational tournament held in the city. Nigerian woman from Lagos and named after the first country in the country. Lady.

Then came WAFCON 2022.

To give a rough idea of ​​Nigeria’s continental dominance in women’s football, one has to go beyond even the fact that they have won nine of the 11 official titles since the first tournament in 1998 – as well as the two unofficial ones in 1991. and 1995.

They never failed to reach the semi-finals. Their worst result is fourth place in 2012. Before this year they had only lost two group matches, against Ghana in 2002 and South Africa in 2018: both times they beat those teams in the final . Their full record from the 11 official tournaments before this one reads as follows: 55 played, 42 won (with three more wins on penalties), eight draws, five losses, 167 goals and 20 goals against.

It’s safe to say that when it comes to Nigeria at the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations, success is expected.

It was therefore understandable that there was some consternation after the defeat in their first group game this year, against South Africa. After recovering to beat Botswana 2-0 in their second match, Waldrum reacted…recklessly. “Quite honestly, the media in Nigeria is very negative,” he said. “We just don’t want that in our camp.”

This, of course, has led to further criticism, with one article declaring Waldrum to be ‘out of his depth as Nigeria boss’.

Everyone knows why Waldrum thought it was a good idea to do battle with the reputedly ‘enthusiastic’ Nigerian media, but before their last group game, against Burundi, he tried to smooth things over. We will classify this attempt under the heading “mixed success”.

“We all have to be responsible when we don’t win, and questions have to be asked,” he said, before suggesting otherwise.

“I think what I want everyone to understand is that I believe strongly in wanting to build women’s football. I think we need the media — it’s very important for us. I would like to see some I think if we want to grow the game, we just need as much positivity as possible.

“We’re still not seen on the same level as the men’s game, and for a coach those things can be frustrating. There are so many things we can do better to promote our game than just burying the players and burying the staff and burying the federation all the time. That’s what I was looking for.

Randy Waldrum led Notre Dame University to US national college titles in 2004 and 2010 (Photo: Jeffrey Camarati/ NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

He then responded to a question regarding midfielder/forward Rasheedat Ajibade’s role by stating that those who disagreed with the way he deployed it hadn’t ‘done their homework’ and that people should “just believe that we know the players better – we see them day in and day out”.

Accusing his critics of not knowing what they’re talking about sounds like a slightly eccentric approach to conciliation, but what arguably angered the most was the condescending suggestion that the media should be cheerleaders on his side in the name of the “promotion of women’s football”, it doesn’t matter. results or performance.

Surely we have long since moved on from that idea and realize that women’s football should be subject to the same scrutiny as men’s football.

Things have improved since then, at least on the pitch, with victories in those two remaining games against Botswana and Burundi as the team qualified with some comfort for the quarter-finals. Nigeria were so dominant in this final match that due to miscommunication with officials over substitutes, they played the first two minutes of the second half with just eight players on the pitch. And managed to score at that time.

“South Africa was a wake-up call,” said Onumonu Athleticism. “The hope is to win. There’s pressure there, but pressure is a good thing. It didn’t matter who won it before, there would always be pressure, because as you see on the pitch, we are one of the best teams here, in my opinion. There is pressure, but I try not to stress myself out.

While American influence is strong, Nigeria by no means relies solely on these players.

Indeed, both the history and the quality of their squad suggest that they would still be the favorites in this tournament without them. The brilliant Ajibade has been their player of the tournament so far. Captain Onome Ebi is a rock in defense and if you get past her you still have to face fellow centre-back Osinachi Ohale. Christy Ucheibe has just won the Portuguese title with Benfica. Six members of this year’s squad have four WAFCON winners’ medals – veteran midfielder Rita Chikwelu has five.

This year they have had to deal with the loss of arguably their biggest star, Asisat Oshoala – currently with Barcelona, ​​and formerly of Liverpool and Arsenal – to a knee ligament injury after their first game. Oshoala was the top scorer in 2016 and player of the tournament in 2014, and while losing a player of that caliber should theoretically be a significant setback, Nigeria are one of the few teams in the tournament that can take such a blow.

“We play for her, we play for the nation,” Ajibade said. “Emotionally, she’s here with us.” When asked if there was now more pressure on her to be the team’s star player in Oshoala’s absence, she replied: “Everyone on the team is a star player. .”

While no one in the Nigerian camp will admit to focusing on anything other than these upcoming matches, starting with a quarter-final against Cameroon in Casablanca today (Thursday), the big target is the 2023 World Cup.

WAFCON also serves as a World Cup qualifier and its semi-finalists are guaranteed to compete in next year’s tournament in New Zealand and Australia.

Despite their continental dominance, Nigeria have never made it past the group stage of a World Cup, and bolstering their squad with these US-based players, to complement the likes of Oshoala, Ebi and Ajibade, is part of of the desire to improve their record on the world stage.

But for now, Waldrum, Onumonu, the Paynes and the rest of the team have Cameroon and a 10th title in their sights.

Just make sure you don’t say anything negative about them if they lose.

(Top photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix)