Super Falcons! Wait a bit, what is super about this team? They are are nine-time African champions; the most successful senior national team on the African continent. Surely, they deserve the adjective “super”.
For almost three decades, they have dominated Africa. The question on everyone’s lips is: why have they not done well at the world stage?
The Falcons who made their World Cup debut in 1991 and exited first round with a very young team and players were happy to play at the world stage. They also qualified for the 1995 edition and equally crashed out in the first round.
In 1999, the team made it to their first quarterfinal under the tutelage of coach Ismaila Mabo and they remain the only African women’s team to do so.
After 1999, subsequent World Cups were experiences to forget for the ladies as they have not made it past the group stages.
Obviously, the Falcons have always been in difficult groups at the world cup. For example, in 2011, they were in the same group with France, Canada and Germany. In 2015, they were in the same group with USA, Australia and Sweden. It would be difficult for any country battling with the stability and development of women’s football match these super powers.
However, Nigerians, even Africans, have optimism that the team can do well in France.
What is the source of this optimism?
A new coach: After coach Ismaila Mabo took the team to the quarterfinal in 1999, no indigenous coach has been able to replicate his achievement as they have all crashed out at the group stage.
In 2011 coach Uche Eucharia won just one game against Canada while coach Edwin Okon managed to get a draw against Sweden in 2015.
The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) took a bold step in 2017 by signing a contract with Thomas Dennerby, the seasoned Swede to take over from Florence Omagbemi whose contract was not renewed after she won the AWCON in Cameroon.
Dennerby has world cup experience; he took Sweden to a third place finish in the world cup and was once awarded coach of the year in Sweden. His experience on the job inspires confidence.
The team: Since Thomas Dennerby took over as coach, there has been a paradigm shift in the team’s tactical approach to games; there is now more flexibility in tactics and formation. Although the team played below expectations at the last AWCON, there are positives to glean from their outing in Ghana.
The team has gradually moved from their conventional 4-3-3 formation to a 3-5-2 formation or a 3-4-3 formation which gives the team balance in midfield and opportunity to score many goals.
With the current form of Asisat Oshoala, a 3-5-2 formation suits her most as she will not play out wide as she does in a 4-3-3 formation but would play closely behind Desire Oparanozie, this gives the team opportunity to gain from her speed and direct goalscoring abilities in a two-man attack.
This formation allows Ngozi Ebere to do what she knows how to do best: move forward, curl in the crosses and return to defend when the team is defending. With Oshoala, Ordega, Oparanozie, Ogonna Chukwudi and Uchenna Kanu available for selection as strikers, it gives the team balance going forward.
Kanu’s record for the national team is impressive. The Southern University striker has scored 10 goals in 7 games for the Falcons with two assists. She scores with her head too, that gives the team options.
The team has experienced defender in Onome Ebi who could make history by being the first African, male or female, to appear in five World cups. Faith Michael is also a veteran who made her debut for the team in 2003. Many of the players would be making their third World Cup appearance; many of them too have won AWCON with the team too. The team does not lack quality in any department.
Preparation: Never have the Super Falcons had a better preparation than what NFF has given the team. From not kicking a ball in one year to playing 10 games in six months. The team played at the Wuhan invitational tournament in China, the Cyprus cup, a high profile friendly game with Canada and other friendly games with top women teams; and a world class training camp in Austria, this has put the team in shape going to the World Cup.
Yes, the expectations are high. The Falcons have almost all they need to excel in France. Though they are in a tough group again, they can be make Africa proud in France.
Super Falcons and France 2019, it is indeed, a journey for glory.