Falconets gear up for U-20 final
The player who tops the goal-scoring list at the ongoing Under-20 Women's World Cup trains underneath a motorway on a dirt pitch, teaches most of her teammates the nuances of the game, and identifies herself by a hashtag #happygirlalways. Asisat Oshoala has netted seven times for Nigeria on their way to the final, including four times in the semifinals and twice in the quarterfinals to stamp her authority on a tournament that an African side has yet to win.
Oshoala learned her game in Port Harcourt, the capital of the Nigerian state known for industry and oil refineries. She plays for the River Angels football club, whose training ground is a dirt pitch below the freeway, and she is their star player. The rest look to her for guidance, and now her national team does the same.
Her versatility has seen her play everywhere from centre back to striker, and the best part is that she enjoys every minute of it. "I consider myself a happy girl, because whatever situation I find myself in, I try to be happy. I like to see people smiling, to make my friends laugh and smile. That's what I'm like," she told FIFA.com.
Little more than a month ago there was a real possibility that Oshoala would not be happy at all. Nigeria was in danger of not participating in the competition. FIFA's ban on the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) for government interference, which saw the board dismantled by way of a court order, threatened to derail the women's game before it did the same to the men's.
There was a desperate plea from Aisha Falode, the coordinator of the Nigerian women's team, and the suspension was lifted. She said, "This nation owes the team the privilege and no effort should be spared to deny it to them." Nine days after Nigeria were booted out of the international game, they were brought back in when the court proceedings that saw the NFF rendered powerless were withdrawn.
That gave the Falconets free passage to contest another Under-20 Women's World Cup, the competition where they have enjoyed their most success to date. They reached the final four years ago and much was expected of their experienced side this time around.
A draw in their opening match against Mexico drew criticism from the local press, who accused the Falconets of wasting "chance after chance" after they should have had the first goal; Oshoala sent a shot over the crossbar and Nigeria had to come from behind.
The team hit back immediately, literally, when United States-based Courtney Dike scored within 18 seconds of their next game against South Korea. Her strike was the fastest in the history of FIFA women's tournaments and the lead was doubled before the half was up. Although Nigeria conceded in the final quarter of the match, they had done enough to take control of the group.
In a pool where the rest of the matches had been draws, Nigeria's match against England would depend as much on the Falconets not losing as it would on the outcome of the other game. However, they made it a moot point with a victory. It was a hard-fought win that required another comeback, but it earned Nigeria a third consecutive quarterfinal appearance.
As soon as they were through to the knockouts, the Falconets spread their wings. Oshoala scored 31 seconds into their match against New Zealand to record the second-fastest goal after Dike, and then added a second 11 minutes later. New Zealand were obviously nervous, and Nigeria took advantage of their opponent's insecurity to dominate the first half. Although they lost their aggression in rainy conditions later on, Nigeria added two more to advance to the final four.
In the semifinal against North Korea, Oshoala came even more into her own. After Dike put the Falconets in front, Oshoala scored an astonishing four times. Uchechi Sunday also netted for Nigeria in a 6-2 victory that gave them a ticket to the trophy match, where Oshoala hopes for another early assault. "Starting the games full of energy forms part of our character as a team. That's how we pressure our rivals, and if we score early it makes them lose heart," she told FIFA.com.
Given the manner in which Nigeria have improved as the competition has gone on, they are expected to deliver a championship performance on Sunday. They will be up against the same opposition they faced four years ago, Germany. But Nigeria are coming off a much stronger string of results and could make continental history if they lift the crown. No one will be happier than Oshoala if they do.