It was a night of contrasting emotions after the first quarterfinal of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup. While the United States of America (USA) players were reeling from shock after their exit, the Nigerians were euphoric.
The Flamingoes had clinched their berth in the semifinals for the first time in their history of the tournament after beating the Stars and Stripes 4-3 on penalties.
During the penalty shootout, quite a few on the Nigerian bench were seen on their knees praying. Each successful penalty and save was celebrated like a title win. The prayers worked, and there was nothing that could stop the Flamingoes from soaring high.
While the players were coping with their emotions, it was interesting to note the body language of Natalia Astrain and Bankole Olowookere, the head coaches of USA and Nigeria, respectively.
While Astrain was trying to cheer her team, Olowookere maintained a calm demeanour as his players ran towards him after victory. It was almost as if he was in disbelief that his team toppled one of the competition favourites.
Win or lose, one thing was certain – Astrain and Olowookere were proud of their team at the end of the night.
At a time, when being boisterous would have been acceptable, Olowookere carried his reserved approach from the pitch to the ‘Mixed Zone’ where he interacted with the media. While the loud music in the stadium was partly responsible, it was difficult at first to understand what the Nigerian head coach was saying, but it wasn’t long before the repressed elation started seeping out, and the energy was visible within the proud man.
“We had a certain strategy, and I am glad we could play according to it. Our opponent was quick and strong, so it wasn’t easy for us. Scoring first put us under pressure, and they [USA] equalised too. But I am glad we could play according to our strengths and hang on,” said Olowookere.
The ‘Fada’ spirit
The word ‘Fada’ means to battle and fight in Hausa, a language spoken in Nigeria. The Nigerians and their fight go beyond the football pitch.
Lack of infrastructure is one of the most basic problems. Defender Miracle Usani dedicated the win to all her people back in Nigeria.
“Nobody believed in us, so we just had ourselves. Today, we are proud, and we have made Nigeria proud,” said Usani with a beaming smile.
Usani had to deal with her nerves in the penalty shootout. After USA keeper Valentina Amaral saved her first attempt, Usani had the chance to take her penalty again as Amaral was found to be off her line when she saved it. The second time in, Usani buried the ball at the back of the net. In such a tense situation, it was Usani’s version of a ‘miracle.’
Asked about how she felt after the win, she said just four words, and her expressions conveyed everything - “I am very happy.”
Bankole’s bag of tactics
In the fifth minute of second-half injury time, the Nigerian head coach made two substitutions - goalkeeper Chikasmo Jiwuaku replaced Faith Omilana, and Edet Offiong replaced the injured Amina Bello. These two players would play crucial roles in the penalty shootout.
Offiong calmed the nerves by converting her penalty right after Ella Emri missed hers, while Jiwuaku saved USA captain Riley Jackson’s spot-kick to take the shootout to sudden death. Omamuza Edafe would go on to score the next penalty to make history.
In the end, all those missed chances by the USA did come back to bite them, and conversion in the final third was a factor Astrain stressed multiple times after the match.
“We created more than 20 chances which means we created opportunities and believed in our style of play. I am absolutely proud of my girls, and this is something we will continue doing. Today, we were not accurate with our finishing, but that is the game,” said USA head coach Astrain after the match.
“Nigeria were very good opponents. They reached the quarterfinals, so they must be good. Today, they took their opportunities, and we need to say congratulations to the opponent,” she added.
After the match, Olowookere said, “This was the most difficult match we have played. The match against Germany was tough but today against the Americans was most difficult.”
Bankole Olowookere has Faith (Omilana), Blessing (Sunday) and a Miracle in his team. Asked if that helps, he laughed and said, “They are my heroes and like my babies. I am like a father to them. I am happy that the whole team made me and all of Nigeria proud.”