PORT HARCOURT, December 5, 2017 – On this day a year ago, the Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium in Yaounde, Cameroon, was laden with hope for women’s football in Africa. The 40,000 capacity edifice played host to the final of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations between Cameroon and Nigeria in front of a stunning attendance of which most were already settled in their seats five hours before kick-off.
In the end, the Super Falcons edged the Indomitable Lionesses 1-0 to clinch a record eighth continental crown – that, of course, dealt a huge disappointing blow to the thousands of Cameroonian fans in the stadium and beyond. That notwithstanding, their unprecedented show of support, which attracted rave reviews, had already defined victory for women’s football in Africa. Or so we thought.
But how did things not get better from there? How did such high hopes deflate to regression?
Nigeria – the champions – returned home to an unbefitting welcome. And had to parade the streets of Abuja days later as they staged a protest march to the State House before they were paid their allowances and bonuses. An action that subsequently marked the end of Florence Omagbemi’s spell as coach of the team. One year gone, they are yet to kick a ball.
On the contrary, Cameroon – the beaten finalists – were made to enjoy a moment of glory as they were duly rewarded during a presidential reception. But it turns out they were only being fed a false sense of belonging as much as 2017 will have no record of them in action.
Cue in priority and you will struggle to find a place for women’s football in Africa. This was unintentionally affirmed by the President of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), Amaju Melvin Pinnick in a recent interview with Channels Television.
“We want to apologise to the (Super) Falcons. We didn’t ignore them, it was just a strategy. We said let us concentrate and get the Super Eagles back on track. We will come back to them. It’s not easy running Nigerian football, you know. The environment is very tough.”
That was meant to be an apology? In any case, no excuse justifies the Super Falcons’ one year of inactivity. No, not one. And announcing coach Omagbemi’s replacement did not have to take the whole year. It is obvious the Super Falcons are just being taken for granted – after all they are the dominant force on the continent and can, sarcastically speaking, win matches in their sleep.
Reigning Africa Women’s Player of the Year, Asisat Oshoala and Desire Oparanozie – who, by the way, scored the late lone goal that clinched the title for the Super Falcons last year – voiced their concerns via social media in August. At the time they were lamenting eight months of inactivity and Oshoala asked thus: “what is our vision?” (https://twitter.com/asisatoshoala/status/902432162816937984)
Away from Nigeria, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) held its election in March and a new president, Ahmad Ahmad, emerged like a breath of fresh air, subduing Issa Hayatou’s 29-year-old reign which had become suffocating.
Four months later, a two-day symposium aimed at developing the vision of African football was held in Rabat, Morocco, but there was nothing on women’s football. Instead, another symposium which will be exclusively for women’s football has been fixed for March next year – eight months after the first. On the surface this is not a big deal, but it is an attestation to the seeming pause mode on women’s football in Africa which still longs for the wind of change to blow its way.
In the meantime, South Africa has set the pace in the management of women’s football on the continent and it is no surprise that the Sasol-sponsored Banyana Banyana are the only side to have played at least one international match every year since 2000. Sasol have been supporting women’s football in South Africa for eight years and only three months ago, they extended their sponsorship until June 2021.
Out of the few senior women’s national teams on the continent that were engaged in international matches this year, Banyana Banyana played the most number. They kicked off their 2017 with a 2-0 loss to France in January, played five matches to win the COSAFA Women’s Championship in September – defeating Zimbabwe 2-1 in the final – before wrapping up with a 4-0 victory over Burkina Faso in October.
It is thanks to the COSAFA Women’s Championship, which was resurrected after five years, that Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozamique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe can boast of at least three matches under their belts this year.
Algeria played four times against Jordan – twice in February and twice again in June; Ghana, who beat South Africa to third place at the Women’s AFCON last year, suffered an 8-0 demolition at the hands of France in an international friendly in October; while Equatorial Guinea defeated Comoros 4-0 in November.
It is disappointing however that more than 70 percent of the senior women’s national teams in Africa have spent a year or more without playing a single match. It is true that there were no qualifiers for major tournaments lined up this year – just like in 2009, 2013 etc. But CAF and its member associations need to learn how to utilize international breaks if women’s football on the continent must grow. For what it is worth, women’s football in Africa deserves more.
From the Algarve Cup to the Cyprus Cup to the SheBelieves Cup and so on, there are annual global invitational tournaments out there that can afford African teams the needed exposure. For instance, South Africa have participated in the Cyprus Cup five times. They could have made it six appearances this year but withdrew in December 2016.
Again, like the COSAFA (Council of Southern Africa Football Associations) and CECAFA (Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations) Women’s Championships, more regional tournaments could be established to keep the teams busy every year. Consistency is key.
In a letter to the confederations dated 13 November 2017, the women’s international match calendar for the period of 2017-2019 was attached. It is time to get to work. Qualification for the 2018 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations begins in February and will end in April. The Women’s AFCON will take place in Ghana from 17 November to 1 December and Africa’s representatives to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France will emerge – and hopefully they would be offered grants to prepare for the global showpiece just like their male counterparts have been given $500,000 each.
Then again the symposium in March is expected to churn out significant decisions that will benefit women’s football in Africa. However one can only keep one’s fingers crossed as the New Year unfolds.