Sunday, 16 June 2019

FIFA Women's World Cup: Nigeria on 'changing mentality' of women's football in Africa

For Nigeria's players, the Women's World Cup is about far more than just football.

The nine-time African champions remain the only nation from that continent to have qualified for every tournament since its introduction in 1991, and yet their players still face barriers at home.

For some in Nigeria, football is not seen as an acceptable occupation for women.

"This view is not just in Nigeria but in Africa as a whole," said striker Asisat Oshoala, 24, who plays for Barcelona and is one of the game's most exciting talents. "The women are supposed to be housewives. They are supposed to be in the kitchen - that is the problem.

"We are trying to change their mentality."

Nigeria, with three points from their opening two games against Norway and South Korea, are ranked 38th in the world and face hosts France on Monday with a place in the last 16 up for grabs.

But had Oshoala's parents had their way, she would not have been involved.

"I would stay with them and not get any money for food," says Oshoala, who scored in her club's 4-1 Champions League final defeat by Lyon last month.

"I would have to walk to training because they didn't want to give me the money to do it.

"Sometimes I would leave school to train, then rush back home. Sometimes I had to lie to them and go to my friend's houses before playing football. If I saw my dad, I would have to run away so he didn't see me."

As the lowest-ranked country in the group, Nigeria face a tough task to make it through to the knockout stages of the competition but hope to leave a lasting impression either way.

Nigeria's best run came in 1999, when they reached the quarter-finals in the United States, but they have failed to progress beyond the group stages in the past four competitions.

From carrying the hopes of a continent on their shoulders to battling against personal challenges, the Nigerian team have overcome a lot.
'Nobody wants to marry a career woman'

Women's football in Africa is not as popular as it is in Europe, says Oshoala, who adds "the mentality is really, really down".

"In Africa, you only have a few people interested in female football," she says. "Most parents don't want their kids to play football. They want them to go to school. That almost affected my own career but I was lucky because I pulled through."

And Shanghai Shengli forward Francisca Ordega, a team-mate in the national side, thinks Nigeria has a "long way to go" in order to change these perceptions of women's football.

"A lot of the time, people don't even know anything is happening," Ordega told BBC Sport. "They are not even covering this World Cup, which I think is bad. If it were the men's team, something would definitely have been done."

Ordega, 25, has played football in Russia, Sweden, America, Australia, Spain and China, and was once told by her mother she would never get married if she decided to stick with football.

"People around me would say 'you will never get married because nobody wants to marry a career woman'," says Ordega. "They asked if it bothers me and I said 'no' but deep down it does because you're not supported by your loved ones.

"There are a lot of challenges like that every day. My mum was so against it but now she is happy. She never wanted me to play football for those reasons. I was stubborn. I decided to do what I loved. I am glad because my stubbornness took me somewhere.

Changing stereotypes and inspiring a continent

As well as changing people's opinions of women's football, Ordega is pushing for better pay for players in Nigeria.

"The pay level is so low behind the men," said Ordega. "If we could get just 30-40% of what they get, it would be really nice. Now we don't even get 10% of that.

"We do the same thing that they do. We play 90 minutes; we play in the World Cup and at the Olympics."

But pay is not at the forefront of Ordega's mind when she's representing Nigeria. To her, "being successful is not about money" and she gains more fulfilment by inspiring the younger generation.

"People say to me that their child wants to be like Francisca," Ordega said. "That brings me joy and makes me really happy.

"It is about how you influence others. That, to me, is being successful. I want people to say, 'I want to play like you in the future'. I am really glad I can impact somebody's life."

Nigeria are joined by Cameroon in the group stages, as well as South Africa, who are competing in their first World Cup.

But it is Nigeria who are seen as a symbol of hope for Africa.

"We conquered Africa even with our worst preparations so that says a lot about the team," said Oshoala. "Going to the World Cup as African champions gives us a responsibility. We are representing Africa as a whole."
Taking revenge against the hosts

Ordega can well remember her team's 8-0 defeat by France over a year ago, so when the two sides go head-to-head in Rennes there's only one thing on the Nigerian players' minds: revenge.

"We are not scared of France," says Ordega. "I like challenges. We went to France last April and the result was pretty bad but that's football.

"We went to Germany in 2011 and lost 8-0 in the preparation for that tournament but in the actual World Cup they struggled to score against us. We know France are a good team though."

Team-mate Oshoala added: "You can't beat my country 8-0 and come back and do it again. No way!

"We have to go all out against them. We want them to know that was just a mistake. We have to return our image. It will be an interesting game."

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