Lagos, Nigeria – Nigeria’s 0-0 draw with the Republic of Eire final week took their Ladies’s World Cup factors tally to 5 from three matches, sufficient to safe passage from the group stage for under the third time within the nation’s historical past.
A round-of-16 conflict with England beckons on Monday, and for 59-year-old cab driver Adetunji Ajagbe, this holds significance. Regardless of giving up on watching the nationwide groups for years as a way to – in his phrases – “keep away from coronary heart assaults”, the Tremendous Falcons’ performances have tempted him again.
The prospect of one-upping England, in mild of the colonial subplot, is especially tantalising.
“They took a lot from us [when] they colonised us,” he says.
He added: “I’ve not been following Nigeria in [recent] competitions, however these women are taking part in good soccer and utilizing their power very nicely. I imagine they’ll go far.”
The work of the present crop in Australia is redemptive in additional methods than one.
Not solely is it repairing the nation’s picture as also-rans on the Ladies’s World Cup and assuaging the anger and disappointment over the Tremendous Eagles’ failure to qualify for the 2022 males’s World Cup in Qatar, however the success of the Tremendous Falcons’ marketing campaign down below has supplied a uncommon shiny spot within the midst of political instability and violence, runaway inflation, a value of dwelling disaster, and rising youth migration.
“Having a nationwide staff doing nicely in a significant event is all the time distraction for Nigerians as they typically overlook their crises so long as the staff stays in that event,” sports activities journalist Fisayo Dairo instructed Al Jazeera.
“Some excited followers are already being bullish in regards to the Falcons’ possibilities of attending to the semifinal, this can additional improve the unbelievable and unstoppable pleasure and assist throughout the nation.”
As one among many Nigerians thrilled by the facet’s performances, human assets specialist Victoria Olowonefa stated it was nice to listen to constructive information about Nigeria on a world stage.
“It’s a breath of contemporary air amidst the chaos we’re experiencing as a rustic,” she stated.
Ladies’s soccer has all the time been well-liked in Nigeria, however regardless of the nationwide staff that includes at each Ladies’s World Cup for the reason that 1991 inaugural version, it has largely performed second fiddle to the boys’s recreation – regardless of the ladies bringing dwelling way more silverware.
On African soil, Nigeria cleared the path with 9 titles from 12 Ladies’s Africa Cup of Nations titles. However on the Ladies’s World Cup, no nation has misplaced extra matches or conceded extra targets.
The Tremendous Falcons had been notably unfancied and beset by disputes on the eve of this World Cup.
Other than being drawn in a troublesome group alongside Olympics champions Canada and the co-hosts Australia, Nigeria’s preparations for the 2023 version had been nearly derailed by a public confrontation between the Nigeria Soccer Federation (NFF) and the staff’s coach Randy Waldrum, in addition to the specter of a gamers’ boycott over a pay dispute.
The American coach bemoaned a scarcity of assist, cash owed to each coaches and gamers and interference in his staff choices.
“In October, each nation was given $960,000 from FIFA to arrange for the World Cup. The place’s the cash?” Waldrum stated on the On The Whistle podcast in early July.
His employers in flip fired again, berating him for talking out of flip – NFF spokesperson Ademola Olajire reportedly branded him an “incompetent loudmouth” and “the worst coach to have dealt with the Tremendous Falcons by a rustic mile”.
Regardless of the nationwide staff’s historic file of success in Africa, they’ve typically gotten the quick finish of the stick relative to their male counterparts. Gamers have additionally protested unpaid bonuses at earlier tournaments and there was negligible funding within the native ladies’s leagues, with seasons commonly truncated as a result of a scarcity of funding and golf equipment understaffed and underfinanced.
It was hardly shocking that many predicted an early exit on this 12 months’s Ladies’s World Cup and had been content material to merely keep away from shame. That Nigeria then went on to safe a spot within the spherical of 16 by beating Australia, holding Canada, retaining two clear sheets and avoiding defeat got here as a welcome shock.
Radio host Biola Solace-Chukwu described the success as “a aid”.
“[It is] a pleasure to see the staff taking part in inspiring, disciplined soccer,” he instructed Al Jazeera.
The staff not solely boasts attacking stars resembling Barcelona’s Asisat Oshoala and Atletico Madrid’s Rasheedat Ajibade, however can also be constructed on a strong defence.
Many credit score Waldrum for his means to dam out the noise and get the squad well-drilled and in peak bodily situation.
“Lots of people didn’t imagine we’d get out of the group,” the American coach stated. “However now, Nigerians can see the work that we’ve put in, and we’re as ready as we probably can [be].”
In the meantime, some say assist for a profitable nationwide staff has additionally helped carry a divided nation collectively.
“This event has helped foster nationwide unity as many individuals look past their ethnicity, spiritual and political affiliations to observe and cheer the ladies on,” Abuja-based public well being employee Opeyemi Afolabi stated.
“Watching the ladies play with a lot enthusiasm and success has been a supply of inspiration to younger folks, lots of whom look as much as a number of the gamers as position fashions.”
‘No larger motivation’
Whether or not the positivity round this World Cup marketing campaign will final lengthy stays to be seen. In some ways, the Tremendous Falcons are papering over the cracks with their outcomes and there may be nonetheless no decision over what coaches and gamers are owed by the NFF.
“The Tremendous Falcons’ success down below has to this point been distraction from the challenges within the nation [but] everyone knows it’s short-lived as a result of when the sport is over, after a couple of hours or days of celebration, Nigerians are again to actuality,” sports activities journalist Queen John-Moseph stated.
Nonetheless, by elevating the profile of ladies’s soccer within the nation, some hope the World Cup run can enhance the degrees of accountability and assist in Nigerian soccer.
“This unbelievable World Cup run will certainly carry the publicity and assist the ladies’s recreation desperately wants at dwelling,” Afolabi says. “Hopefully, it’ll additionally present gamers from Nigeria’s native leagues with a chance to play in the USA and in some European nations.
“For years, the Tremendous Falcons gamers have been handled poorly and possibly now they are going to get the therapy they deserve.”
With reigning European champions England up subsequent, they are going to want greater than enthusiasm and pleasure again dwelling if they’re to progress to the quarter-finals at a World Cup for under the second time of their historical past.
That stated, whereas Nigeria would go in because the underdogs, it’s a tie that doesn’t maintain undue worry for the Tremendous Falcons. They’ve, in any case, nothing to lose and are buoyed by the hope and enthusiasm of greater than 200 million folks.
In actual fact, the Tremendous Falcons have a constructive head-to-head file towards England, having overwhelmed them twice in three conferences.
“The Nigerian staff has thousands and thousands cheering them on at dwelling, on social media, TV and radio,” former Tremendous Falcons goalkeeper Rachael Ayegba, a member of the 2007 World Cup squad, instructed Al Jazeera.
“And I actually suppose there isn’t any motivation larger than that.”