By John Andah
THE last FIFA Women’s World Cup showcased the United States reenacting their dominance of the game and African teams reshowing their unreadiness to take the world by storm. Coached by Jill Ellis, the Americans won a record fourth world title at the Stade de Lyon in Decines, France, after dispatching their opponents in a scintillating manner.
While four of the six continental bodies tied to FIFA have made it to a Women’s World Cup final, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) are the only exceptions.
Although the reigning African champions, Super Falcons of Nigeria, and Cameroon’s Lionesses made it past the group stages in France, Africa has underachieved in this competition as it has not been represented at least in the quarter-finals since the 1999 edition.
Exactly two decades down the road, the Nigerian team, like Cameroon, managed to reach the round of 16 by progressing as one of the four best third-placed teams after losing two matches and recording a 2-0 win over South Korea in Group A. Their journey in the 24-team tournament eventually ended with a 3-0 spanking by a ruthless German side, while that of Cameroon also ended with a 3-0 hammering by another European side England. The other African rep, Bafana Bafana of South Africa, did not progress beyond the group phase on their debut.
Indeed, the performances of the three African representatives clearly leave so much to be desired. But judging by Nigeria’s dominance of the game in Africa for close to three decades – winning all but two Africa Women’s Cup of Nations tournaments, qualifying for all World Cups, and reaching the quarter-finals in 1999 – there is a pool of talents in the continent’s most populous nation.
What then is the problem?
Lack of adequate preparation has stopped Nigeria and other African sides from successfully challenging the top sides. The Falcons may be the biggest and most successful team in Africa, but they are no strangers to underfunding. Recall after winning the African title three years ago in Cameroon, the Nigerian women returned home to protest, asking for their legitimate earnings (let alone honour). Coach of the team at the time, Florence Omagbemi, lost her job for defending the players against the governing body of the game in the country, Nigeria Football Federation (NFF). Thereafter, the Falcons were neglected for a year. On the part of Cameroon, they did not prepare early enough. Coach of the side, Alain Djeumfa, was only appointed in January, but gained experience as a member of the backroom staff of former coach Joseph Ndoko, and had former captain Bernadette Ndongo as his assistant.
Going forward, Nigeria and the others, in addition to other forms of preparation, should up the ante by adopting the management styles of formidable teams. This is where adequate attention must be given to sports science.
One emerging issue in women’s sport is the menstrual cycle and its impact on performance, player health and injury risk. The reigning world champions, United States, deployed an unprecedented programme to minimise the adverse performance impact of the menstrual cycle. This is a peculiar aspect of preparation, as far as women football is concerned. In their search for marginal gains, the team contracted an expert consultant to provide research-based insight on the next frontier in sports science. In a report by The Telegraph, United Kingdom, fitness coach of the US team, Dawn Scott, said: “I’ve known about these effects, the research, for a long time – but working with 23 players, I had always struggled to know how to accurately monitor that and how to individualise strategies for players.”
So the fitness coach had the American national team undertake a detailed survey about their cycle and associated symptoms, and began monitoring players with the help of an application called FitrWoman. It has been observed that high-performance teams are usually tight-lipped about their sports science innovations, as they are eager to retain the edge over competitors. But with what the Americans have revealed, Nigeria and other African teams, not known to be as scientifically equipped, know what to do.
To this end, the NFF, through the body’s women’s football department, should ensure it puts in place programmes that allow particularly young players feel comfortable talking about their menstrual periods and issues with their coaches. Ahead of the qualifiers for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, the NFF and the coaching crew of the Falcons, led by Thomas Dennerby, have another chance to raise the bar. There are no short cuts to success, and if football federations and governments in Africa can all go back and address the grassroots development of women’s football, and other special and significant needs, the situation could change at the next Women’s World Cup in 2023.
Photo Credit: Billboard