Nigeria’s U-20 women’s team, the Falconets, are ambitiously rating their chances of becoming the first African team to win a women’s FIFA event in September. Their confidence springs from a surprise success two years ago when they reached the final of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Germany.
Nigeria lost in that match against a more organised home nation, but they have now returned to the biennial competition armed with the belief that they could do themselves one better in Japan. “We know the pressure is on Nigeria because of our performance at the last World Cup, but we are working towards posting another good outing,” declared centre forward Desire Oparanozie, who along with Ebere Orji was the team’s leading scorer with two goals at Germany 2010.
“The match against Korea, which kicks off our campaign [on 19 August], will determine how far we could go and can boost our confidence. You can be sure that I am not going to Japan to count skyscrapers, but to win the World Cup,” added fellow striker Francisca Ordega.
The Falconets, under new coach Edwin Okon, qualified for Japan 2012 in convincing style after they hammered their DR Congo counterparts 7-0 on aggregate. After just eight minutes at the Stade d’Martyrs in Kinshasa, Ngozi Okobi put Nigeria ahead. Shortly after that, striker Desire Oparanoziemade it 2-0, and Francisca Ordega scored her fourth goal in the qualifiers with a sizzler on 23 minutes to beat the hosts 3-0 in the second leg. In the previous round of the qualifiers, the Falconets dumped Zimbabwe 6-0 on aggregate.
In Japan, Nigeria are drawn against South American heavyweights Brazil, Korea Republic and 2012 European semi-finalists Italy in Group B. After the draw at the Conrad Hotel in downtown Tokyo, coach Okon was excited that the serious end of the journey has begun for the Falconets. “Now we know who our opponents are. All the countries in our group are great with excellent records in the women's game,” he said.
Top-flight success is a taste not easily forgotten, something the young ladies of Ghana’s U-20 women’s national team can testify to.
Two years ago in Germany, the Black Princesses surpassed all expectations by making their debut appearance at the finals of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2010. Despite a group-stage exit, they performed creditably and left with their heads held high, determined to secure another tilt at international glory.
Now, with a tough qualification process behind them, the girls from Ghana have achieved their goal and will soon be packing their bags to join Nigeria as one of two African representatives at Japan 2012.
Their record in the African qualifiers for both Germany 2010 and Japan 2012 is exemplary. Ghana have played ten matches in total (four for Germany and six for Japan) and won them all, proof, if any were needed, of the robust state of the women’s game in their homeland.
Considerable credit must go to their coach Robert Sackey who, as well as being a passionate advocate of the female game, is the founder of the Sabisoccer Academy, which has the long-term goal of raising standards in women’s football.
Speaking to FIFA.com, Sackey explained the significance of his young charges qualifying for the second FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in a row.
“It’s certainly given us a lot of confidence,” the California-based coach said. “It proves that there’s real determination and stability in the side, plus we now have the chance to turn in a better performance than our last outing, which is what everyone wants from us.”
After guiding his team seamlessly through the qualification phase, Sackey’s next challenge was to keep them at peak levels of fitness and performance.
In June, the Black Princesses were confined to a closed training camp with practice matches against fellow Ghanaian youth sides, including the U-17 women and the U-17 and U-15 men. Intensive training sessions continued through July, culminating in two international friendlies against fellow African qualifiers Nigeria in Accra, with the hosts winning the first 3-2 and going down 2-1 in the second.
Sackey was full of praise for their Nigerian opponents and pleased both with the outcome of the matches and his players’ preparations.