Young guns shine but sorry Nigeria must go back to basics
Nigeria ended their 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup campaign with a 3-0 defeat by Germany, going out of the tournament with barely a whimper after just one win in four games.
Despite progressing to the knockout stage for the first time in 20 years, the Super Falcons were generally a poor side overall and deserved to be beaten.
Their football was tardy, riddled with errors, and mostly uncoordinated in a performances that has left way too many questions and not enough answers.
It was not all bad so let's start with the positives, and there were more than a few bright spots to point to.
For a start, the 2-0 win over South Korea meant the Super Falcons won their first World Cup game since 2011, when they had defeated Canada 1-0.
They also set a few records along the way.
Asisat Oshoala became the first Nigerian player to score in two World Cup tournaments, and Onome Obi became the first African to play at five World Cups with her 14 games a record for World Cup appearances by an African.
But best of all has got to be Chiamaka Nnadozie, 18, who became the youngest goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet at the World Cup -- and in her very first start.
Speaking of 18-year-olds, the youngsters really came to the party for Nigeria.
Apart from Nnadozie, who was installed in place of the older and more experienced Tochi Oluehi after the Super Falcons had been dismantled by Norway partly due to goalkeeping errors, there was Chidinma Okeke.
The full-back not only stepped up after Faith Michael's tournament was cut short by injury for the second consecutive time, but she emerged as one of the better players overall.
Up front, Rasheedat Ajibade barely got a look until the second half against Germany, but her pace, strength and delivery in that fixture created the best chances for Nigeria in three games -- apart from Okeke's set up for Oshoala's goal against Korea, of course.
And mention must go to Osinachi Ohale, who turned up big in defence in almost every game, but especially against Germany; despite the three goals, a great case could have been made for her to claim Player of the Match honours.
Her partnership with Onome Ebi saw a more disciplined Nigeria defence than in previous years.
With that out of the way, time to sink some teeth into the real issues.
Despite qualifying for the second round, the Super Falcons looked a really poor side. The team lacked cohesion, their passing was disjointed, and their decision-making all over the pitch was horrific.
For a team with the talents and experience of players such as Oshoala, Desire Oparanozie, Ngozi Okobi, Ebi, Francesca Ordega and Rita Chikwelu, this was a major let down.
Only twice -- both times against South Korea -- was the strength of Oshoala's blazing pace ever played to.
Oparanozie, whose ability to hold up play and attack deliveries into the box are her biggest assets, never received service.
Ordega ploughed a lone furrow up front, making herself the one constant outlet for attacking plays but there was so little service that she had to drop deep to scavenge for scraps; and when she did get any sort of supply, there was next to no support from deep.
Players such as Halimatu Ayinde and Chikwelu constantly ran themselves into blind alleys when a simple lateral pass would have unshackled both them and the players around them.
There were no attempts to construct plays or create chances outside of shots in the dark, as basics went out the window.
Overall, the Super Falcons looked more like a team of streetball players coached by an amateur with no knowledge of football tactics. They looked a worse side than previous years, which made coach Thomas Dennerby's post match comments very puzzling
"I think we showed the whole world that Nigeria have a team that has improved a lot," Dennerby said after the defeat by Germany. "Of course you're not satisfied to go out but you also have to recognise where we came from -- and we're just not ready yet.
"It's important to play high-level teams like Germany because the players can see that even the smallest mistakes get punished. But the second half was really good, and now we just need to focus on improving and using all the FIFA dates to play matches. Because we have some really talented players back in Nigeria."
The Future ...Dennerby was right to mention in his aforementioned post-match comments the need to play more games. Nigeria's build up to this year's World Cup was the best the Super Falcons have ever got. Only the 2003 squad even comes close from a preparation point of view.
Playing tournaments like the Cyprus Cup and the Algarve Cup will help to provide experience against high-level opposition away from Olympic Games and World Cup tournaments.
But the real issue runs much deeper.
It was clear to see that the Super Falcons had their basics all wrong: Technique, passing, movement, decisions, even shooting. Dennerby may have his faults as a coach but these are not problems that are solved at international level; they are basics to be taught from a young, developmental age, and built into players until muscle memory develops.
Nigeria have been to all eight FIFA Women's World Cup tournaments since its inception, one of only seven teams to do so. England, for instance, are only at their fifth. But the Lionesses were quarterfinalists in 2007 and 2011, and they finished third in 2017. This year, they are tournament favourites while the Super Falcons have been regressing since 1999, when they made the quarterfinals.
To do well at the next World Cup, the preparations must start immediately. And not just friendly matches.
Players must spend time in camp re-learning their basics. They must repair their leaden touches, practise their passing, eliminate panicked clearances from their game, and work on their movement.
Otherwise, this story might as well be put in the cooler and dusted off for regurgitation again in 2023.