Super Falcons have suffered a lot of neglect from the Nigerian Football Federation since their last continental triumph in the 2016 African Nations Cup. The team starts defending the title against a much better prepared South African team in the 2018 edition of the competition. reports IDRIS ADESINA
The 2018 African Nations Cup kicked off in Ghana on Saturday with matches between Ghana hosts Algeria and Cameroon and Mali.
But the defending champion, Nigeria, begins the title defense against South Africa on Sunday (today) at Cape Coast Stadium. Super Falcons won their eighth AWCON title two years ago in Cameroon and would try to choose one of three spots for the 2019 Women's World Cup in France and add another triumph to their previous accolades.
With the Falcons making their 11th appearance and Banyana making their tenth place in the competition, Nigeria hopes to continue their dominance over a vastly improved and motivated South African side. South Africans are entering the tournament as champions of the COSAFA Women's Cup.
Banyana Banyana has been busier than the Falcons, having played friendly matches with teams from Europe, South America and Africa. Well motivated with money by the sponsors of the national team, Banyana Banyana aims to win one of the 2019 Women's World Cup spots.
The Falcons are expected to overtake their South African opponents, having won the title eight times in 10 and only losing the title twice to Equatorial Guinea. They finished third in 2008 and failed to win a medal in the tournament once in 2012. South Africa, in turn, is three times vice-AWCON – 2004, 2014 and 2016. They finished third twice in 2002 and 2012.
In the game, Nigeria have an overwhelming advantage against South Africa, who have won nine times in 11 matches in the competition's history, while the South Africans have only won a 1-0 win in the semi-final. Equatorial Guinea 2012. Their last meeting was in the semifinals of the 2016 edition, when Nigeria recorded a 1-0 victory.
The Falcons are the continent's most successful national team and enter the tournament as team favorites. But many stakeholders were left to think about the continued service provided to the team by the Nigerian Football Federation.
The 1999 Women's World Cup finalists are probably the least prepared of the tournament. Since winning the title in Cameroon two years ago, the team has been without any tangible activity until the qualifiers for the 2018 edition start in June – when they beat the Gambia 7-0 in total to qualify.
The most successful women's team in Africa has been without a coach for a year – after the expiration of the contract of the 2016 title-winning coach Florence Omagbemi – until NFF announced Sweden's Thomas Dennerby as their coach in January. The team played a friendly against France in February, where they were beaten 8-0. Since the qualifiers, the team only started camping for AWCON less than a month ago in Epe, Lagos state.
Less than two weeks ago, much to the surprise of many team supporters, they embarked on the final stage of preparation for AWCON 2018 in Abidjan dressed in mufti, looking very much like a team assembled in a hurry. The team traveled to Abidjan in different outfits, with reports stating that their kits were held at Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos due to lack of funds to clean them.
In addition, the team is reportedly receiving a total of $ 6,000 per player for their 2018 AWCON wins over the Gambia in Banjul and Lagos. They are also supposedly debtors of the camp for the competition.
"Yes, we still have $ 6,000 for both games against The Gambia. Since we started camping for the competition, we have not received any permission and we are going to the competition without the guarantee of receiving the bonuses, "said one of the players, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
While in Ivory Coast, the team faced the Under-16 Boys team of ASEC Mimosas, who lost 3-1 before getting a 4-2 win over the 11 Sisters in Abidjan in their second friendly.
Former Falcons midfielder Stella Mbachu imagined what those friendlies could do for the team, compared to the level of opposition they would face in the tournament.
"It's really a sad situation that Hawks need to get through. Unfortunately, it's been this way since we were on the team. We hoped things would get better, but there were no changes. A title defense team playing against small teams when their opponents are playing with tough opponents leaves a lot to be desired, "she said.
Although they were received with songs and dances in Ghana on Wednesday, the Falcons did not have the honor of traveling in style to the host country. He learned that they traveled with teams from Zambia and Cameroon, who also camped in Côte d'Ivoire.
However, it is not all right for the Falcons, as Dennerby has the talent and experience at his disposal to ensure the achievement of his goals – title defense and qualification for the World Cup. Dennerby will have the experience of captain Rita Chikwelu, who will make his sixth appearance in Ghana, and veteran defender Onome Ebi, who is making his eighth appearance in the competition. Ngozi Okobi and Desire Oparanozie, who are in fourth place respectively, are also key members of the team, while the current Asisat Oshoala, the female African national team player of the year, contributes to the options of the Swedish strategist.
Dennerby and his assistants – Swedish colleague Jorgen Petersson; Justine Madugu and Maureen Madu – also have the talents of former Falconets stars Chiwendu Ihezuo and Rasheedat Ajibade, who are making their AWCON debut to add to the experienced players. Ajibade, at eighteen, is currently the best player in the national league and could add value to the team. The star of FC Robo, if he has the opportunity in the tournament, can prove himself as one of the best advanced on the continent.
The Falcons will also play in Zambia and Equatorial Guinea, runners-up of the CosaFA Cup, in other matches of the group on the way to the title defense. They will find any of hosts Ghana, Cameroon, Algeria and Mali from the semifinals. The Ghanaians won the WAFU Women's 2018 Championship after beating Nigeria in the semifinals.
Dennerby said the focus of his team was on qualifying for the World Cup.
He said: "Our ambition is to win the tournament, but importantly, ensure our passage to the 2019 World Cup in France. Of course we know that it will never be easy because there is a great improvement of many teams; That's why it's important to be prepared to win games.
"There is always pressure on the coach and you have to live with it. I am 59 years old, but I am lucky to have experience in two world cups, two Olympics, two European Championships and as coach of so many clubs, in addition to playing in the Champions League. But we can focus on our work and not speculate too much. I think we'll have a good tournament in Ghana. "
The captain of the Chikwelu team supported his coach.
"We want to qualify for the Women's World Cup because we believe we should be playing against the best teams in the world." Personally, it is my wish to see the Super Falcons reach the semifinals at the Women's World Cup and Ghana 2018 is an opportunity to show what we can do. We want the Nigerians to pray for us so that we can reach the World Cup and win the AWCON trophy, "she said.
But the former Falcons midfielder, Mbachu, warns the team against complacency.
She said: "Everyone expects Nigeria to win, but given the team's preparation and the lack of motivation for the players, the work will be difficult. The talents are there, but they need to be motivated and well-prepared to ensure they do their best in every game.
"The other teams are no longer what they used to be when Nigeria beat them with up to five goals. The margin is very narrow now and the Falcons should not underestimate any team in Ghana or else there may be a turn of any of them. "
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