Last Sunday, October 30, in Mumbai, Nigeria’s U-17 Women’s Football team, the Flamingos, made history when they defeated European giants, Germany, in the third-place match at the just concluded FIFA U-17 Women’s world championship for Nigeria’s first-ever medal at the world youth championship and the second for Africa, following Ghana’s success in 2012 in Azerbaijan.
Before Sunday’s historic feat by the Flamingos, the Nigerian girls had attended all but one championship which was in 2018 when they were beaten on the away goal-rule by Cameroon (3-3 aggregate after 2-2 in Benin City and 1-1 in Yaounde).
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The girls had featured at the inaugural edition in New Zealand, and after a win (over South Korea), loss (to England) and draw (with Brazil) in Wellington and Christchurch, they flew back after the group phase.
Two years later, the Flamingos reached the quarter finals at the second edition in Trinidad and Tobago after beating North Korea, hosts Trinidad and Tobago and Chile for maximum points in the group. But they lost to eventual winners South Korea in a quarter-final match in Marabella.
At the third edition in Azerbaijan, the Flamingos drew 1-1 with Canada, thumped hosts Azerbaijan 11-0 and hit Colombia 3-0 to reach the quarter-finals. However, France won a penalty shootout 5-3 in Baku after both teams had failed to find target in regulation time.
In 2014, another impressive group stage campaign (2-1 defeat of China, 2-1 defeat of Colombia and 3-0 defeat of Mexico) ended with a 3-0 defeat by Spain in the quarter-finals.
In 2016, the Flamingos faltered in Jordan and were back home early after losing to Brazil and North Korea and drawing with England.
The embattled Flamingos then missed the chance to atone for the failure in Jordan as there was no competition in 2020 because of the global coronavirus pandemic.
But then, the 2022 edition in India offered the ‘perennial under achievers’ the opportunity to move from a no-spot to a more dignifying position in the history of the cadet championship.
Before arriving in India, Coach Bankole Olowookere’s girls had pounded Democratic Republic of Congo 3-0 in Kinshasa and 5-0 in Benin City, and prevailed over Egypt 4-0 in Abuja and 2-0 in Cairo. In their final qualification fixture, they pipped Ethiopia 1-0 in Addis Ababa and the second leg in Abuja ended scoreless.
After a 10-day final camping programme in the Turkish city of Kocaeli, Olowookere said: “We will be facing a tough task out there in India but I believe that if we play as a team, we can get something out of the World Cup. I have a group of girls who are ambitious and they fear no team. This could stand us in good stead in India.”
Despite the optimism expressed by the coach, the Flamingos started their campaign in India on a shaky note. After going one goal up against Germany in Goa on the first day of the tournament, the Flamingos capitulated 2-1, but refused to bow their heads.
They spanked New Zealand 4-0 with some scintillating displays also in Goa and edged Chile 2-1 in Bhubaneswar to reach the knockout stage.
Against the USA in the quarter-finals in Navi Mumbai, team spirit and team work were important to keep the scoreline 1-1 and take the session to penalties. Substitute goalkeeper Linda Jiwuaku, brought in for the shootout, saved one of the kicks and an American player fluffed her kick to give Nigeria victory.
Back in Goa, another penalty shootout was needed against Colombia in the semi-finals. With the Flamingos ahead and a kick from glory, defender Omamuzo Edafe, who scored the penalty kick during play and the winner in the shootout against USA, saw her kick crash against the upright. Nigeria lost in sudden death when defender Comfort Folorunsho lost her kick.
The third-place match against Germany also had to be settled via penalty shootout, after the Flamingos who started the match firing on all cylinders conceded three goals in the last 18 minutes to tie the game 3-3.
Victory in the shootout, despite defender Tumininu Adeshina’s miss, earned Nigeria a historic third-place at the finals after being nowhere near the last tournament in Uruguay.
“We give God the glory. It was a roller-coaster but we learnt a lot of lessons and it will help the players as they graduate to other levels of the National Team.
“We strove hard to get our hands on the trophy but we will take the bronze medals for now and return home to go and prepare hard for the next edition,” Coach Olowookere said.
In view of their gallant display in India, the Flamingos have moved from under achievers to national heroines. No wonder, when they were hosted to a sumptuous reception in Abuja, the Minister of Sports, Sunday Dare, said world champions can be made out of the bronze medallists.
He said “We commend you for the way you performed without fear and held up the flag to win a historic bronze for our country in this competition.
“I praise the NFF for the support to the team right from their screening through the qualifiers and to the arrangements for final camping in Turkey and the final tournament in India. We must also commend the coaching crew for their steadfastness in imparting the right knowledge to the players.
“I will be happy to see these players graduate from this level to the U20 and then to the senior team, because they have the skills and talent, and demonstrated ability to do very well. The Ministry will give NFF the right support to achieve that. They have served well as good ambassadors of our country on and off the pitch.”
Captain of the team, Alvine Dah-Zossu also expressed appreciation to the Ministry and the NFF, and thanked Nigerians from all walks of life who prayed for and wished the team well in India.
The Chairman of the Benue State Football Association and member of the new NFF board, Rt. Hon. Margaret Icheen, also commended the girls for their perseverance and determination.
“As a mother, I am truly happy with the achievement of the Flamingos. Like I said before, their performances in India and the third place finish are indications of good things that are about to happen in Nigerian football.
“I urge the girls to remain focused. They shouldn’t be distracted by their present success. They can become world champions in no distant future,” said the former Speaker of the Benue State House of Assembly.
It was not only words of appreciation for the girls. Even as they wait for the Presidential reception promised them, some public spirited Nigerians have continued to shower them with cash gifts.
Moments after they arrived from India, a dummy cheque of the sum of N3m promised the team by Super Eagles’ captain, Ahmed Musa, was presented to the players and officials at the airport.
Interestingly, the Chairman of the NFF Task Force on Youth Competitions, Alhaji Aminu Balele Kurfi, who had splashed a whopping $30,000 on the Olympics Eagles, also promised the Flamingos the sum of $10,000 and a dinner to be hosted by his wife in his Abuja residence.