Falconets a great advert for African female football
I watched Nigeria's Falconets, the female Under-20 national team, lose to the USA and to Japan in the semifinal and third-place matches of the 2012 Fifa Under-20 Women's World Cup.
Their performances sounded a real warning to the rest of the world and Nigerians should take note: Nigeria's female national football team, the Falcons, are likely to win the female Fifa World Cup long before the male team even become real contenders.
These championships have been a revelation. The Falconets are just a step away from the Falcons. By year's end I believe many in the Under-20 team will have been moved up to the senior national squad. The skills the players exhibited and their comfort on the ball have been truly remarkable.
They played every match with grit, guts, speed and power, plus tons of confidence well beyond their global rating. In their last two matches particularly, both of which they lost, they were very dominant in possession, faster to the ball, stronger in the tackles and unlucky not to have converted a few really good chances.
Ordinarily, one would be tempted to believe that all of these attributes reflect something new happening to the domestic female game in Nigeria. Unfortunately, a close look reveals no such thing. Female football in Nigeria does not appear to be on the ascendancy. It does not exist in over half of the country, particularly in the northern part, were 'women and sport' is almost a cultural and religious taboo.
Even in the south, where all the players come from, only very few schools and a sprinkling of female clubs participate in the organised game. The female national league is muted and its followership is sparse.
It is ironic, therefore, that at international level the country is growing in stature and standards in performance are rising. It will not surprise anyone if, in the next few years, the Falcons get to the finals of either the Olympic Games or the Fifa Women's World Cup.
Yet, in all of this, there is something missing - an essential element.
There has always been a missing ingredient in Nigerian and most of African football. Individual skills, athleticism and power often cloud the true situation by compensating for lack of team tactics. More often than not, the lack of good tactics and organisational team discipline make African countries come short at critical times during major championships. This weakness has become their Albatross.
Most countries hire foreign coaches, ostensibly to provide for this shortcoming. Unfortunately, these coaches are themselves either ignorant, or are not given the length of time on the job (and the people do not have the patience) required for this culturalisation to take place domestically.
The alternative is the export of players to Europe where many of them are introduced to proper team tactics for the first time in their careers. This individual development neither impacts on a country's domestic football nor even helps significantly, as we have seen with many national African teams loaded with foreign-based players failing to lift performances to the highest levels.
In Japan, deficiency in tactics and organisational discipline, characterised mostly by the dearth of creativity and poor final touches (passes) in the opposing goal area, robbed Nigeria of the real possibility of winning the 2012 Fifa Under-20 Women's World Cup.
Jonathan Akpoborie, a former Nigerian international that played all over Europe for many years, captured it nicely:
"Despite being the better team with skill, fitness, athleticism…..our girls lost to a USA team that was more organised, and by far less-gifted in terms of talent on display.
A coach is like a Mallam controlling his cattle. If he is good you see him on the side relaxing while his cattle eat but if he is bad, he is all over the place trying to bring back one cow from one corner. A lot of people do not even understand the words 'tactics' and 'discipline', and that’s what brings everything together in football.
In my time as a footballer, I thought I had everything when I left for Europe, but getting there I had to learn intensively to catch up with understanding the game.
Today our girls lost, not because they were not good enough, nor because were they lacking commitment but because they were playing like every other player you will find on the streets in Nigeria - with raw talent only.
They simply did not have the tactical discipline. It is not every Tom, Dick and Harry that can see what I am talking about now. Just because you played football in Africa does not mean you can see these things."
I couldn't have put it better myself.
Having said that, I must congratulate Nigeria's Falconets for putting up a great advertisement for African female football.