The much anticipated AWC kicked off on the 11th of October in a country known more for its tourist attractions than its football history. Namibia welcomed the seven best female national teams in Africa to slug it out on the field of play for a chance to be crowned the rightful heiresses to the throne of football royalty in Africa.
That team would ascend, rule and dominate for the next two years. Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia qualified for the finals out of twenty five teams who vied for a place in a tournament with Namibia completing the 8th and final spot automatically as tournament hosts. The championship format is a round-robin format i.e. eight teams divided into two groups of four teams with the top two in each group progressing to the semifinals.
With the group stages completed and the ‘’Girls’’ separated from the ‘’Women’’, here are eight things we’ve learned from the tournament so far and why it is heralded as ‘The Best Three Takes it All’
1. Women’s football is getting it right… Gradually
From the media attention to the quality of football on display as well as the officiating, Namibia 2014 can arguably be termed one of the best AWC tournaments in its 23 year history. Being the 9th edition of a competition that has been held biennially since 1998 (1991 AND 1995 had a four year spacing), the aim is to mirror the growth and state of women’s football in Africa with an effort to continually improve it. Firstly, the venues used which is the Sam Nujoma and Independence stadium in Windhoek are of commendable standard. The pitches have been suitable thus far and such can be credited to the favorable weather conditions and also the hosts for proper planning. Also, the influx of foreign based players has been a landmark as African footballers have left the shores of the continent to ply their trade in Europe and America; continents that dominate the women’s footballing circuits and this has improved the quality on display. One of such example is Desire Oparanozie, the Nigerian forward who played for VFL Wolfsburg in the German Bundesliga. Wolfsburg went ahead to win the UEFA Women Champions League in the 2013/2014 season. The influx doesn’t just stop with the players. National Football Associations are now hiring foreign coaches in a bid to improve the game. A notable example is South Africa’s ‘Banyana Banyana’ Dutch Head coach, Vera Pauw.
In addition, the growing popularity of social media in Africa has helped the tournament become widely discussed on social media platforms with dedicated harsh tags such as #AWC2014. This innovation if dated to the last championship in 2012 and compared will see that the media attention given to the tournament has helped boost its popularity amongst Africans.
Finally, the officiating has improved markedly and this can be attributed to proper training and coaching of the match officials. The number of female referees for the tournament has equally been an exciting as a total number of 27 Match officials (12 refs and 15 assistants refs) drawn from 19 countries has been encouraging.
Women’s football in Africa is surely displaying encouraging signs and more can certainly be done. At this rate, it can only get better.
2. But the Gulf between Nigeria and the rest of Africa remains
The Super Falcons of Nigeria have been the predominant force in these parts since its inception. Out of eight biennial editions, Nigeria has gone on to win it six times with Equatorial Guinea a distant second with just two titles but that in itself is not much of a victory as the side who were supposed to be defending champions were eliminated from the qualifying stages. The Falcons are looking dispel their last two outings in 2010 and 2012 were they finished 2nd and 4th respectively and they have gone on to a flying start winning all three games in group A and maintaining their 100% start to the campaign against teams like Zambia, Ivory Coast and the hosts, Namibia. They are the highest scoring side with twelve goals scored and just two conceded. The next team that comes close (Ivory Coast) has scored just six and conceded SIX as well. The flurry of stars and depth in quality of this side has led them to be tagged the overwhelming favorites for the title. There is a fine blend of experience and youth in a side that plays with relentless intensity at the blast of the whistle. Of the twelve goals scored which includes a 4-2 opening day win over Ivory Coast, A 6-0 mauling of Zambia and a tightly contested 2-0 win over Namibia, the former Wolfsburg forward and current En Avant de Guingamp of France striker, Desire Oparanozie has netted 4 times. Stalwarts like Osita Ohale, Francesca Ordega and Ebere Ngozi have been particularly solid with the experienced goal machine in Perpetua Nkwocha as the icing to the cake. The team also incorporated the 2014 U20 silver medalist squad with tournament MVP Asisat Oshoala netting and being instrumental in Nigeria’s electric strike force. With this form, the team can blow any African side apart and this begs the question…Is Nigeria too strong or are other teams second best at challenging the Number 1 team in Africa albeit 33rd in the world according to the latest FIFA ranking. The Gulf needs to be shortened but in the meantime, the Falcons as they’re called can fly away into the abyss of football success.
3. The Old Guns have plenty to offer
It has been a tournament with youthful players in action but the old war horses are still very instrumental in leading their charges. South Africa’s Portia Modise is one who keeps defying age and some more. The 31 year old Midfielder /Forward since her debut in 2000 have had a glorious 14 year stay with the Banyana Banyana. The FIFA Player of the year nominee in 2005 has also broken a record in 117 caps as the 1st South African player to reach the 100 goal mark (with the inclusion of the male team). In a team that Vera Pauw has fielded youth, Portia has been responsible for keeping the team settled with her runs and leadership. Assisting her is Janine Van Wyk who as a defender still portrays the old die hard spirit. Her intelligent set pieces and organization of the team especially from the back has kept the team going since 2004. Perpetua Nkwocha of Nigeria who is a 4 time African Player of the Year and plies her trade for Sunana SK of Sweden is one Veteran of worthy mention. The 38 year Old’s finesse is still sublime and her one touch finishes are a proof of refined Gold. Dubbed as arguably Africa’s best player of all time with a career spanning over 15 years bloods plenty of experience into the side and her sheer presence in the team gives the team a special feel and boost. Others include the smiling yet efficient Stella Mbachu of Nigeria, Onome Ebi of Nigeria and the safe gloves of Precious Dede, Nigeria’s 1st choice shot stopper.
4. Rising Stars of African Football
The stars they say come out at night but in the AWC, they have come irrespective of the time of the day. Namibia has fielded some stars to watch for in future and the include the following:
-Asisat Oshoala: the MVP of the U20 World Cup in Canada was widely publicized to succeed the aging Perpetual Nkwocha. The hype has indeed paid off as the tall, energetic forward has been at the end of a number of assists and a goal to open her account at the championship, at just 20 years. She is indeed proving to be a handful to her oppositions.
-Zenatha Coleman: the 21 year old JS Academy number 10 has brought smiles to faces of Namibians. Being Namibia’s debut tournament, they have showcased Zenatha Coleman to the world. Her sheer work rate, goals and quality set pieces has stood her out so far.
-Thomalina Adams: The 21 year old striker from Namibia was one who to look forward to in this tournament. Though she bowed out of the tournament with a solitary goal in three games, her display was commendable. She is one to look forward to in coming years.
-Tia Vino Ines N’Rehy: The Ivorian forward who has had two goals in the tournament so far has been a handful. At just 21 and making her debut for the national team in 2011, the youngster has got the world at her feet with her power and precision up front.
– Gaëlle Deborah Enganamouit: Supplying the goals for Cameroon has been the 22 year old Eskilstuna United of Sweden forward. The Cameroonian who played for the side at the 2012 Olympics has brought her vast experience from the UEFA Champions league and can also be utilized as a midfielder. She squares off against another rising star, Tia N’Rehy of Ivory Coast in the semis on the 22nd.of October.
5. Namibia LOVES the game but the stands are still EMPTY!
It is left to be seen if the Sam Nujoma stands will be filled to capacity for the remainder of the tournament but so far, the problem that has plagued women’s football the world over continues to haunt us all. EMPTY STANDS. Two grounds were slated to host the tournament in Namibia; The Independence Stadium (25,000 Capacity) and the Sam Nujoma Stadium (10,300 Capacity) both in the capital city of Windhoek. However, it was the ground that had the hosts Namibia playing, that one could notice decent turn outs. The most horrendous was Zambia vs. Ivory Coast were one could have a tea party with number that turned out. Publicity in women’s football hasn’t been the best over the years. People just don’t leave their houses to go watch a woman’s game and that notion has got to be changed be it via ticket sales, publicity or any means. It was purely evident to see the Namibian crowd get behind their team while for a majority of other games, a pin could drop on the pitch and the souls on it could hear it. One can’t begin to tell the importance of having the stands full in a game. Just glance at the male tournaments and one will see how that in itself changes the ambience and uplifts/intimidates teams. Things have got to CHANGE and FAST.
6. The Queens aren’t so Royal
So much was expected from the Black Queens of Ghana not just as one of the powerhouses in African football (currently 3rd in Africa and 51st in the world) but for the fact that preparations started pretty much early. As at the end of July, players were already in camp at some point involved in a training tour in Japan. The task on Yusif Basigi’s hands was to get the girls past the group stages and all the way to the finals as they last appeared in the finals in 2006 were they finished as runners up. If that was unattainable, the least would have been to at least get the team to pick up one of the three world cup qualifying ticket which is a step up from 2 previously allocated to Africa. Ghana was the 2nd team after Nigeria to represent Africa in the continental championship in USA 1999 up until China 2007. Coincidentally since 2008 till date, they have either failed to progress from the group stage, failed to qualify for the AWC (2010 edition) and that has led to their absence from the World Cup since 2011. A lot will have to be put in place so that queens will at least regain their crown in Africa.
7. Algeria, the Golden Opportunity and THAT miss!!!
Algeria is no stranger to the qualifiers of the AWC. In fact since 2000, they have either not qualified for the finals or not gone past the group stage. With their 1-0 stunning of the Black queens of Ghana in the 1st game of this tournament, it seemed that they were on course to make it out of the group stages for their 1st time and to be the 1st North African side to do so in the history of the AWC. THEY CAME. THEY SAW. THEY BLEW IT. Albeit in a tough group B WHICH HAD top teams like Ghana, South Africa and eventual group winners, the Indomitable Lionesses of Cameroun. They followed the win with a 2-0 loss to Cameroun and a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of the Banyana Banyana. With a number of their forward players plying their trade in France and the glimpses of what to come for the girls, 2016 is another year to make use of their Golden Opportunity…If they get it.
8. The Battle has just begun
The Group Stage is over. The ‘’Girls’’ have been sent packing and the ‘’Women’’ are left to slug it out for A. The AWC CROWN. B. World Cup Qualifying ticket.
The teams square off at the Sam Nujoma Stadium on the 22nd of October with Nigeria vs. South Africa as the 1st fixture before Cameroun takes on Ivory Coast.
NIGERIA VS SOUTH AFRICA
Eight time AWC champions, Nigeria faces their old nemesis South Africa in what is a major feature in the AWC. South Africa in their last meeting beat Nigeria at this stage in 2012 edition, their 1st win against Nigeria since 1995. The head to head in eight meetings is 1 WIN, 0 DRAW AND 7 LOSSES 0. Janine van Wyk was the goal scorer and she is still in the team that faces Nigeria on the 22nd. Nigeria will be weary of the set piece prowess of South Africa as well as their discipline at the back. With vengeance lurking, Nigeria will be the pumped up ones with eyes on the trophy they last won in 2010. South Africa on the other hand aims to win their 1st AWC title after eight appearances in all and six at this since 1995. South Africa will have their work cut out with the attacking threats of Oshoala and Oparanozie up front and the deadly set piece specialist Ngozi Ebere, overlapping fullbacks in Ugo Njoku and Gloria Ofuegbu. The Banyana Banyana should capitalize on the spaces the full backs leave with Portia Modise dropping deep in her midfield playing role to dictate play, leading Shinwe Nongwaya, the preferred forward on the counter.
Whatever the outcome, it is bound to be an exciting affair.
CAMEROON VS IVORY COAST
It will be a fierce show down after the two sides met in the group stages of the last edition in 2012. Being the tournament’s debutante after 10 years of failed qualification since 2002, Cameroon, eight time tournament regulars brought the Les Eléphantes down to earth after the Ivory Coast team beat Ethiopia comprehensively with 5-0 score line. They were schooled 4-1 in the hands of the Indomitable Lionesses with Tia N’Rehy getting the consolation goal. The Ivory Coast squad of 2012 is different team to the one compared to 2014. With their blistering forwards, the team has morphed into being a very physical and dominating side. The only loss they received was at the hands of Nigeria and that in itself was a close encounter as they pushed the Falcons all the way. The Ivoirians will take solace that the Cameroonian side lost their previous game to Ghana meaning they are quite beatable.
With Equatorial Guinea absent, Cameroon will want to be the OTHER African nation who will want to repay their tournament appearances with at least a trophy in their cabinet and/ or a world cup ticket. The third place finishers in 2012 will have a monumental task of curbing this spirited Ivorian side that has been the revelation of the tournament. But the arsenal Cameroon possess in forward, Gaëlle Enganamouit who is their highest goal scorer on two goals, Midfielder Iven Mihamlé one of the goal scorers in their last meeting and Cathy Bou Jouh who plies her trade in Nigeria and is a free scoring defender will be able to match the strength the Ivoirians possess in Nahi Estelle Marie Josée, N’Rehy Tia Voho Inès who have scored two goals each and Miriam Diakite the agile defender. With one team who plays free flowing football and the other who breaks play stoically in other to counter, it’s safe to say we have a CRACKER on our hands!
The Battle line has been drawn and the WOMEN are READY. Three World Cup tickets and the AWC Crown is worth the WAR!
‘Janine is a TV/Radio Sports Presenter/Correspondent and Web reporter for SPORTON Nigeria. She also covers Africa Women’s football for various portals including the NFF (Nigeria Football Federation) and The Women’s Game