Most of the past week was dominated by one of our top women football super stars Ugochi Desire Oparanozie. Her exclusion from the Super Falcons squad to the ongoing Turkish Women’s Cup has generated varied reactions.
In my early days as a sports reporter, I was a very close follower of the women’s game. I was a regular face in the camp of the Super Falcons any time they gathered to prepare for international assignments and also watched a lot of the games in the women’s league
Those days, the Super Falcons were usually camped at the Farmgate Hotel, Ota, Ogun State. It belonged to former President Olusegun Obasanjo. I was very close to the coaches, Ismaila Mabo and Effiom Ntiero at that time and to some of the players too.
I cannot forget how an unfortunate injury ended the career of one of my favourite Super Falcons, Prisca Emeafu on the eve of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Armed robbers had invaded their camp in Ota and while trying to take cover, Emeafu hit her foot(I can’t remember if it was the right or left foot now) against the sharp end of the metal frame of her bed, creating a very bad, deep cut on her Achilles.
Sadly, that was the end of a promising career. It was a very painful experience for the young lady. I really felt for her.
I have kept my interest in the women’s game through the years though and also followed the happenings.
As one of the country’s top rated active players, most people expected to see her name among the first set of names to be called up especially as this was to be new coach Randy Waldrum’s first opportunity to work with the team.
Majority believe this is a witch hunt at its best while others feel our ‘star girl’ has become a disruptive influence and should be rightly left out of the setting…at least for now.
I want a middle line or neutral approach to this because of the few encounters, all pleasant though, that I have had with Desire Oparanozie.
I first took notice of this amazing talent in 2007-2008, when as a young teenager (probably 13-14 years old) she featured for the first set of the Flamingoes, Nigeria’s U17 Women’s team ahead of the inaugural 2008 FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup.
Then in 2009, at 15, I remember how she bullied and almost single handedly destroyed the South African U17 team in Abeokuta during the qualifiers for the 2010 FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup. Her dominance on the pitch that day was total and it meant she would be upgraded to the Falconets, Nigeria’s U20 women’s team and even the senior team, Super Falcons.
It was obvious her level was too high for the U17 team. So she became a member of all the women national teams at the same time- U17, U20 and Super Falcons. She would go on to be part of the Falconets that finished second at the FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup in 2010 and the 2010 African Women Championship(AWC) winning side in South Africa. I followed her performance on the domestic scene for Delta Queens of Asaba as well.
I covered the 2010 AWC in South Africa and had a warm, friendly rapport with the young Oparanozie all through. Inspite of her power playing, all action style on the pitch, she was a pleasant, soft spoken and very likeable lady off it.
Till date, some of those 2010 AWC winners are still a delight to watch on the pitch – Ngozi Okobi, Francesca Odega, Onome Ebi, Rita Chikwelu, Osinachi Ohale are all still waxing strong.
In 2014, I was part of the reception held for the Super Falcons at the Eko Hotels after their AWC triumph in Namibia. Oparanozie finished as the top scorer of the tournament with five goals including the opening goal against Cameroon in the final.
She had been delayed just to be part of the reception against her wish because it meant exceeding the permission given by her French club. The club had mandated her to return a day after the final and here the football authorities wanted her as part of the Ministerial reception.
I saw a disturbed but polite Oparanozie who kept appealing to those concerned to facilitate her flight back to France. She threw no tantrums, didn’t raise her voice yet was firm with her requests.
In 2016, Desire Oparanozie was very lucky not to have lost an eye to a horror injury during an African Women Cup of Nations(AWCON) qualifier against Senegal in Dakar. A Senegalese player, we were told, had ‘deliberately’ stepped on her face during a challenge. She had a bad cut on her face that needed stitches. The medics of the Super Falcons confirmed she was lucky not to have lost an eye because of how close the deep cut was to her right eye.
For a long time that injury left a scar on her face, she wore it everywhere with pride as her badge of honour, a mark of service and patriotism to Nigeria. Interestingly, at the 2016 AWCON final in Cameroon, fate had a wonderful reward for her as she scored the tournament winning goal for Nigeria, with literally the last kick of the game, at the expense of the hosts and bookmakers’ favourites Cameroun.
I honestly think no one can fault or question the zeal and commitment of this lady. She is a patriot. She has been carrying the hopes and aspirations of the nation since she was thirteen.
Recall also the drama of the Super Falcons captaincy. At the 2018 AWCON in Ghana, coach Thomas Dennerby rotated the armband between Rita Chikwelu and Onome Ebi. He then decided to hand it over to Oparanozie ahead of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Asisat Oshoala was picked as the vice captain.
Dennerby himself said he hinged his decision on the discipline and professionalism of the duo.
I want to believe that the weight of the captain’s armband affected Oparanozie. She became largely ineffective on the pitch and indiscreet off it, wielding her influence wrongly.
I think the pressure got to her, turning her into a loose cannon. She started to snap, becoming rude and unfriendly with the media and some of her colleagues, and of course with the football authorities. It became clear that she needed help but rather things got worse.
Dennerby left, some of his trusted allies fell out of favour with the football federation and the matter swirled out of control.
Then a couple of misguided, unpleasant comments on sensitive issues about government did not help her image as our once beautiful bride started getting portrayed as a disruptive influence.
Should this be the end of Desire Oparanozie’s international career? I don’t think so.
Let there be some genuine moves at reconciliation.
I want to challenge the General Secretary of the Nigeria Football Federation(NFF), Dr Mohammed Sanusi, the head of the NFF Women Football Development Committee, Honourable Ayo Omidiran, NFF Executive Committee member and chairman of the Women League, Aisha Falode and the new coach of the Super Falcons, Randy Waldrum to make this happen.
It is not only prodigal sons that can return home, prodigal daughters too can.
Rivers United, Enyimba part 2.
Inspite of the downpour in Aba, both Enyimba and Rivers United served us some spectacle of Nigerian football during the first leg of their CAF Confederations Cup playoff tie last Sunday. Enyimba ended the game with 10 men but with a goal advantage. The 2nd leg holds this weekend…I hope the weather is a lot friendlier and the game much better for us to enjoy again. May the better side win.
‘Stubborn’ NNL is back.
The second tier league in Nigeria, the NNL resumed last week. With about 45 clubs jostling for just 4 tickets to the elite division at the end of the season, you can expect a very challenging campaign. I hope the NNL board will be up to the task of ensuring professionalism, fairness and transparency from start to finish.
The Nigerian Nightmare Kamaru Usman.
I am not sure I am a fan of the UFC. I cannot watch it live but I am always quick to look up the outcome of fights especially if a Nigerian is involved. I was so terrified by the form of the Brazilian Gilbert Burns going into the last fight and I feared the worst….but didn’t Kamaru Usman deal with that matter so decisively?…what a champion…what a fighter…what a patriot. Always so proud to show off his Nigerian heritage. Long may you reign KU.
Israel Adesanya, the last style bender also has his date in the cage soon in a different weight category. It will not be easy. I hope he pulls it off. I wish him good luck and success.