The Super Falcons of Nigeria avoided embarrassment against Olympic champions Canada, displaying a resolve that belied the preceding administrative problems
It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. If the sporadic successes of Nigerian football seem to defy its general dysfunction, it is partly because that dysfunction is pervasive and perpetual. The bill comes due eventually, but in that case one might as well embrace the pointlessness of it all and live in the moment, for good or bad.
So, forgive Nigerian fans their enthusiasm following Nigeria’s goalless draw against Canada, the curtain-raiser for a World Cup that, considering the chaos that preceded it, many had written off as a disaster in waiting. A coach trading barbs with his employers in the media and players mulling a boycott over owed bonuses are seldom precursors to the sort of steely resolve with which the Super Falcons kept the Olympic champions in hand. This is Nigeria: logic counts for nothing.
Not that the opening ructions suggested anything other than the embarrassment many had expected. Canada were immediately in the ascendancy, pressing ferociously without the ball and expertly moving the Nigerian block with it. However, there was little threat, and even when Randy Waldrum’s side emerged from their bunker and began to put some passes together, the bluntness of both sides was the real story, and that not for a lack of quality.
The respective talismans – Asisat Oshoala and Christine Sinclair – had their side’s best chance, the former streaking clear before losing her composure with the goal gaping, the latter denied by the outstretched hand of Chiamaka Nnadozie, who was captain four years on from the unlikeliest of debuts. Since the trepidation of being thrust onto the world’s biggest stage in France, the Paris FC goalkeeper has matured into one of the world’s finest and, on a day when defences were to the fore, her willingness to assert herself aerially went a long way toward securing the result.
She had help too, though. Osinachi Ohale, shorn of the speed of her earlier years, gave a virtuoso performance to not only uphold her responsibilities, but to hold the hold of Tosin Demehin. Ashleigh Plumptre filled in at left-back admirably, defending the flank and also flying forward when the occasion required it, while at the base of midfield, Christy Ucheibe gave a bravura performance, disciplined and resolute.
Special praise, however, is reserved for Deborah Abiodun, along with Demehin (and Rofiat Imuran, held in reserve here) a legacy of last year’s Under-20 World Cup. The young midfielder found herself a lightning rod for the frustrations of Nigerians over the exclusion of Ngozi Okobi, but her showing not only justified her inclusion in its own right, but provided a lesson in the perils of zero-sum arguments.
Abiodun, a potential standout on the basis of her gifts in possession, was terrier-like out of it, putting herself about and keeping Nigeria competitive in the thick of things. Her straight red card, deserved not just on the basis of the dangerous tackle that prompted but also on the weight of what seemed like a million infringements, means that unless Nigeria progress, this is all that will be seen of her in Australia. Still, it offers much hope for the future.
Does this result, though? That remains to be seen, but given all of the circumstances that came before, Waldrum has played a blinder to extract a point, and has his lives intact still. A date with a Sam Kerr-less Australia looms, and perhaps it will be the bluntness of their opposition that ultimately saves the Super Falcons, but at some point (probably against Ireland), they will need to actually go for it. The concern in that case would be that, beyond Asisat Oshoala pulling wide and Ifeoma Onumonu exploiting the space to get shots away, there was no evidence of concerted attacking expression: no patterns, overloads or coherence in any phases of play were evident against Canada.
That, however, would be to look too far. Live only in the moment, remember?