Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Women's Olympic Preview: Nigeria


Africa is sending only one nation to the 2008 Women's Olympic Football Tournament: Nigeria.

Nigeria are a dominant force in African women's football, winning the continental championship seven times. But when it comes to the world stage, the Super Falcons barely register a blip.

In five appearances at the FIFA Women's World Cup finals, two at the Olympic Football Tournament and three at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup, the Super Falcons have only managed to progress beyond the opening round on two occasions. Not the best results.

Their star player is Cynthia Uwak, a 21-year old striker.

Uwak, now 21, first burst on to the scene in 2006 when she scored four goals in as many matches to lead Nigeria to the quarter-finals of the U-20 Women's World Cup in Russia. Later that year, the powerful forward, mature beyond her years, went on to be short-listed for the FIFA Women's World Player of the Year award. Though she came in 11th in the final votes' tally, Uwak did manage to earn the CAF African Women's Player of the Year award.

She followed up that achievement by scooping the African award again in 2008, after playing a crucial role in a tense Olympic qualifying series against Ghana.

Despite Uwak's striking prowess, the Super Falcons can't seem to put it together.

They made it all the way to the quarter-finals of the U-20 Women's World Cup in Thailand 2004 only to lose out on penalties to eventual champions Germany. The African queens bowed out at the same stage in Russia two years later following a 2-1 defeat to Brazil.

They bowed out early at China 2007, when they drew with Sweden and went down to South Korea and USA. Luckily, the Nigerians recovered their poise to secure a ticket to Beijing 2008.

Their one and only qualifying defeat was a 1-0 loss to Ghana, a setback that did little to dent their reputation as the pre-eminent force on the continent. The aim now is to perform in Beijing.

"Qualifying for the Olympics is not an end in itself," said coach Jossy Lad. "It was only to be expected for a team of our status. We are continuing to make progress and I have a feeling the girls can go on and do great things at the Games. They are hard workers and they pay attention. If we can get our preparations right and set up some high-profile friendlies before the tournament, the fine blend we've got here could cause a real splash in the summer."

"We have a good team," Uwak said. "African footballers like to improvise and play the ball on the ground, and this team is not different. We can beat anyone on our day and we just need to play according to our style and instincts."

2004 and 2005 African Female Footballer of the Year Perpetua Nkwocha remains optimistic.

"I'm not afraid, neither are my colleagues. We are used to being in the toughest groups at the World Cup," she said.

They're in a very difficult group in Beijing, drawn with Brazil, Germany and North Korea in the women's 'Group of Death.'

Things haven't started out as they expected at the Games.

Although the opening ceremonies don't come until Friday, the soccer tournament is upon us.

Nigeria were beaten 1-0 by North Korea in their opening game of the Olympic women's football tournament.

Kim Kyong Hwa scored with a powerful shot inside the penalty area in the 27th minute of a game that North Korea dominated.

North Korea captain Ri Kum Suk put a penalty wide in the 43rd minute, while Ifeanyi Chiejine failed to connect with a cross in second half stoppage-time, an opportunity that could have given Nigeria a point.

With games coming up against Germany and Brazil, who were winners and runners-up respectively at last year's World Cup, Nigeria's chances of getting out of the group seem slim.

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