The 2018 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (AWCON) kicks off in Ghana this weekend. Nigeria’s Super Falcons will be defending the AWCON title won two years ago in Cameroon, seeking to add another triumph to their past accolades.
The continent’s most successful national team almost by rote, they go into the tournament once again as massive favourites. This makes the continued lip service paid to them somewhat difficult to understand. Less than a fortnight ago, much to the chagrin of many in the industry, the team embarked on the final leg of preparation in Abidjan clad in casual mufti, looking very much like a rag-tag bunch hastily assembled at a moment’s notice.
It was a damning microcosm of the levity with which the nation’s women’s teams, and women’s football in general, is treated. Predictably, what followed was hand-wringing, apologies and a bizarre explanation centred on kits being stuck at customs.
While in Ivory Coast, the team proceeded to face the ASEC Mimosas’ under-16 Boys team. Undeniably the level of opposition the Nigeria Football Federation seems to believe the Falcons will have to contend with in Ghana. However, it all rankles on so many levels.
It seems, sometimes, the football authorities feel the need to put obstacles in the way of our own athletes. It is a weird, and unseemly way to foster resilience. Apologies are simply not good enough when nothing ever changes.
Besides, there is a feeling that this year’s edition might not be the foregone conclusion that it has always been.
The host country, Ghana will have the home support behind them and will draw confidence from their WAFU tournament victory earlier this year, even though that competition only permitted home-based players.
Cameroon and South Africa will also be competitive, but perhaps the biggest threat comes from Equatorial Guinea, who are the only other nation to have won this tournament previously. Though initially expelled after Kenya lodged a complaint about player eligibility, the two-time winners were re-admitted and will be precarious. They will compete out of Group B, same as the Falcons, and should both nations progress, it even sets up the prospect of a final rematch, a repeat of the riveting 2010 final which the Falcons won 4-2.
This implies that there is a tremendous amount of pressure on Swedish manager Thomas Dennerby. He comes with some pedigree, having led Sweden to a third-place finish in the Women’s World Cup, but that was seven years ago. This job will be a far sterner examination of his abilities
He has the hardest job of anyone who has ever managed the Super Falcons. There is a suspicion that, with the outstanding record of success on the continent, just about anyone can coach the team to victory at an AWCON. As such, there will be a greater focus on the ‘How’ – his methods and the manner in which the team plays.
Like a curveball, the AWCON will serve as a FIFA Women’s World Cup eliminator, with the top three sides in Ghana earning a ticket to represent the continent next year in France. A quantum leap for Nigeria will also be expected on that front.
In terms of talent, Dennerby still has the finest assortment to choose from in the competition. If anything, he will face a bit of a headache when it comes to picking, especially in the forward positions where the likes of Asisat Oshoala, Desire Oparanozie, Francisca Ordega will compete for positions. There is also the youngster Rasheedat Ajibade, highly rated and making her first appearance at an AWCON.
If Dennerby can bring them all together, it would go some way toward convincing his doubters, that his appointment has not simply been a waste of scarce resources. It would also give hope of better days to come.