Saturday 8 June 2019

/ by Colin Udoh

Nigeria’s Super Falcons are one of an elite group of only 7 nations to have played in each and every FIFA Women’s World Cup tournament since inception in 1991.

Brazil, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden and the United States make up the rest of that rarefied group. Of that lot, Nigeria are the only team never to have made it past the quarterfinals.

It has been 20 years since the Super Falcons made their first and only escape from the group stage, and as they head into the 2019 tournament, there are expectations that they at least match that performance.

To do so, however, they have a couple of demons to overcome

That 99 team was fuelled by determination. A mentality that they could win and that they had to win. The top eight sides at that World Cup would qualify for the 2000 Olympic Games and so they were determined not just to make the next round, but to qualify for the Olympic Games.
But first, they head to negotiate a difficult pool where they had been drawn with hosts and favourites USA, Scandinavian powerhouses Denmark and the emergent North Korea. Two wins - against Denmark and Korea - punched that quarterfinal ticket.
This team must also play with the same mentality. For too long, the Super Falcons have lost games before even stepping on the green grass, intimidated by the names and profile of their opposition. 
As a result, once they concede goals, their heads drop and finding a path to victory becomes all but impossible.
Now, they must shed that inferiority complex and go into every game with a winning mentality, a refusal to be intimidated by name, profile or crowd. They must confer on each other a mental strength borne of confidence in their own abilities and the work they have done to get this far. Norway  are beatable. Korea are beatable. France are beatable.
It starts in the mind.

Previously, the Falcons have been out-coached and outfoxed from the bench. The USA and European nations especially, have found joy moving the ball around and then switching play with diagonal balls that would leave the African champions flummoxed.
Thomas Dennerby’s appointment was made largely with the aim of countering that.
Since taking over, the Swede has slowly implemented a change in the team shape, getting them to play more narrower and much closer to each other. While his attempts to create more cohesive play has not quite hit the mark, there were signs that they were getting there.
Goals were hard to come by at the African Women Nations Cup as forward’s Asisat Oshoala and Desire Oparanozie struggled.
But the players looked to have come back into form, and have been joined by the quick and clinical Uchenna Kalu. If they can get good supplies from behind, that fierce pace and power should count for something.

Speaking of tactics, setpieces have always been the team’s Achilles heel, at both ends of the pitch. In that 99 quarterfinal, a freekick from Sissi in extra time condemned the Nigerians to a 4-3 defeat.
Since then, they have struggled to defend dead balls, just like their men counterparts.
Dennerby should hopefully have seen to that in his preparation, especially after seeing France’s abilities at those sorts of positions.
Their first consideration should be to cut out the fouls. Right or wrong, Nigeria have a reputation as a physical side at the Women’s World Cup. This means they hardly get the benefit of the doubt in any coming together. They need to play smart and minimize giving away free kicks in potentially dangerous positions. 
When they do give them away, the defending must be absolutely on point. This is where Onome Ebi and Tochi Oluehi need to direct traffic in the area. 

It will still be difficult times, but there has never been a better time to join that team of 99 in the Book of Legend.

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