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Super Falcons’ slippery route to Paris

Nine-time Africa champions, the Super Falcons last Tuesday, thrashed Ethiopia’s Lucy 4-0 to reach the third round of the 2024 Olympics qualifying series. The first…

Nine-time Africa champions, the Super Falcons last Tuesday, thrashed Ethiopia’s Lucy 4-0 to reach the third round of the 2024 Olympics qualifying series. The first leg played in Addis Ababa had ended in a 1-1 draw as the more illustrious Falcons fought back to earn a point.

However, in the return leg at the MKO Abiola National Stadium in Abuja, it was something close to a massacre because the former African champions, although a little bit lackadaisical, still made mincemeat of their opponents.

Well, that is where the good news stops for now because the Super Falcons are going to meet arch-rivals, the Indomitable Lionesses of Cameroon in the next round of the qualifiers in February 2024. This is not the kind of opposition that fans of the Super Falcons want for their team at this stage of the competition. The reason is that anything Cameroon in football invokes fear in the minds of Nigerian football fans.

Of course, the Super Falcons are more endowed than their Cameroonian counterparts but the simple fact that the Indomitable Lions have on a few occasions, broken the hearts of Nigerian football fans is deemed enough reason to dread their ladies as well. Some of us can still recall how twice, the Lions stopped the Super Eagles from winning the Africa Cup of Nations title.

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First, it was in 1984 in Cote d’Ivoire where the Lions devoured the Super Falcons 3-1. As if to rub salt into Nigeria’s injuries, the Samuel Etoo-inspired Cameroon stunned the Kanu Nwankwo-led Super Falcons 4-3 on penalties in the final of the 2002 AFCON. That particular defeat was more painful because it happened right here in Nigeria at the now-abandoned National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos. Anyway, the Super Eagles have also had their memorable moments against Cameroon such as when they defeated the Lions on their way to Russia 2018 World Cup. The Super Eagles were also responsible for the early exit of Cameroon at the 2019 AFCON in Egypt.

However, at the mention of Cameroon, shivers still run down the spines of Nigerians. What most Nigerian football fans dread the most about any national football team from Cameroon is their physicality. They may not be gifted technically, but what they lack in skills is found in their strength and ruggedness on the pitch. No football contest between Cameroon and Nigeria is child’s play.

Therefore, the February double-header between the Super Falcons and the Lionesses of Cameroon is one that must be given all the attention it deserves. Moreover, in spite of their intimidating profile in African football, the Super Eagles are yet to impress at the Olympics.

So far, they have made only three appearances since women’s football debuted at the Olympics in 1996, the same year Nigeria’s Dream Team I won Africa’s first gold medal in the event. After their appearances in 2000, 2004 and 2008, the Super Falcons have failed to qualify for three editions in a row. They missed out on London 2012, Brazil 2016 and Tokyo 2020. This means that in over 12 years, the Super Falcons are yet to taste Olympic football.

The Bayana Bayana of South Africa stopped the Super Falcons from reaching the London 2012 Olympics, Equatorial Guinea did the same damage in 2016 before the less fancied Les Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire nailed the Super Falcons’ coffin in 2020 right in front of their fans at the Agege Township Stadium in Lagos. The loss to the baby Elephants was double jeopardy because in the same year, the Olympic Eagles also failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

Anyway, Nigerians are hoping that the Super Falcons won’t allow thunder to strike thrice. By the way, they have psychological advantages over the Lionesses. Apart from the fact that they performed better than Cameroon at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia/New Zealand, the Super Falcons had recorded notable victories over the Lionesses in friendly and competitive matches. In July 2022, the Falcons defeated Cameroon 1-0 at the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (AWCON) in Morocco. Before then, they had beaten their arch rivals 1-0 in the finals of the 2016 AWCON in Cameroon. When they met again in the semi-finals of the 2018 AWCON in Accra, Ghana, the Super Falcons triumphed again 4-2 on penalties.

Although football pundits have already tipped the Super Falcons to progress at the expense of the Lionesses, they have to redouble their efforts because they weren’t so convincing in their last match against Ethiopia. Even though they won 4-0, the scanty crowd that watched the match complained that the Super Falcons didn’t show enough quality to convince them that they will fare better against a more formidable opponent.

In any case, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) knows what is at stake. Before the match against the Ethiopians in Abuja, the General Secretary of the football federation, Dr. Mohammed Sanusi, visited the girls to remind them that they couldn’t afford to crash out of the 2024 Olympics qualifiers. The ladies also hearkened to the clarion call and qualified for the next stage where a tricky tie lies in wait.

The NFF must immediately sort out the issue of a substantive coach for the Super Falcons. If the federation wants to do away with Randy Waldrum despite his impressive performance at the last World Cup, then they stop procrastinating. It is either they renew his contract or allow him to go. And if the NFF is convinced that Justine Madugu is good enough to step into Waldrum’s shoes and lead the team to the Olympics, they should make him the substantive coach.

In fact, this is the right time to settle all the lingering issues, be it coach or match allowances, to enable the Super Falcons to concentrate fully on their preparation for the make-or-mar clash with the Indomitable Lions. Already, the men’s team has crashed out so we shouldn’t toy with the last chance that is available.

The NFF must remember that even if the Super Falcons survive the Lionesses, that is not going to be the end of the story because they will have to overcome either perennial rivals, the Bayana Bayana of South Africa or Tanzania, in the final play-off in order to reach Paris.

The route to Paris is indeed littered with banana peels but Nigerians won’t accept another disappointment from the Super Falcons. However, if they can bring out their A-game like they did at the 2023 World Cup, there will be no wailing and gnashing of teeth by Nigerian football fans at the end of the 2024 Olympics qualifying series.

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