A wacky tale of sex, cash, drugs, race, witchcraft, politicking, cronyism and rampant age-cheating…
The Nigerian women’s football team’s incredible journey to the inaugural 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup is an inspiring story marred by scandal and intrigue. Amidst farcical scenes and a rotating cast of surreal hangers-on, the team of plucky young women overcame tremendous odds to truly put African women’s football on the map…
Walking on the wild side: the start of women’s football in Nigeria
The Nigerian women’s football team were founded in January 1991, backed by the Nigerian Football Federation’s (NFF) youth department – at a time when few women’s teams in the world had association backing.
True, the federation’s backing only amounted to a dilapidated bus and a tiny daily allowance of 20 Nigerian Dollars for each player at the final tournament in China. But it was a start.
Originally nicknamed the Amazons, the team were eventually dubbed the Super Falcons. The violent connotations of Amazons no doubt made some nervy, so it was quietly ditched in favour of the more ladylike Falcons.
Nigeria was emerging from one of its semi–regular FIFA bans. Three male players turned up at the 1988 Olympics professing different birth-dates than those supplied at previous youth tournaments, bringing about a two-year rap for age-cheating.
Although the ban was apparently commuted, the nation was also stripped of hosting the 1991 men’s FIFA World Youth Championship as a result.
Capitalising on an organic women’s football boom, Princess Bola Jegede put up the money for a national women’s Cup tournament, from which an initial 50 players were selected.
Unlike the modern scourge of pretend ‘Nigerian Princesses’ – senders of a million spam e-mails – Jegede had real wealth and was an outspoken advocate of women’s football.
A coach was found in the shape of Niyi Akande. Himself a former Nigerian international in the 1960s, he had taken his coaching badges in Durham, England during 1973.
Akande was a volatile character: at one of the first training sessions he allegedly brawled with his assistant in view of stunned players.
There was no shortage of applicants for what was a plum job.
Then as now, paid football coaching positions were rare, especially with the national association. So plenty of genuinely talented coaches threw their hat in the ring – amongst the usual freeloaders, wannabes and chancers.
With squad and coach in place, Nigeria embarked on a shambolic African qualification tournament in which half of the eight teams withdrew.
Future adversaries South Africa were still banned from all international sport due to the Apartheid regime, which was finally canned later in 1991.
The first round brought a 7–2 aggregate win over arch rivals Ghana. Uche Eucharia later recalled bagging a hat-trick in the first meeting, played in front of a capacity crowd at the National Stadium in Lagos.
After the 2–1 second leg win in Ghana, coach Niyi Akande was accused in the press of invoking “juju”, a form of witchcraft, to win the match.
Resenting the accusation, Akande penned a letter right to the very top – First Lady and Falcons patron Maryam Babangida.
This left a number of noses out of joint but ended well enough for Akande when the local warlord, General Adisa, made the issue disappear: dropping Akande as coach but letting him keep his cherished salary.
Akande suspected the juju story was concocted to get Paul Ebiye Hamilton – another former international and face on the local soccer scene – into the job.
Hamilton duly took over for the rest of the qualifying cakewalk: seven and six–goal aggregate drubbings of hapless Guinea and Cameroon.
Meanwhile Akande took a job managing top Nigerian men’s club Shooting Stars FC in 1992. In 2014 the madcap boss, 71, was in high dudgeon at his “inhuman” sacking from Crown FC.
The club gently suggested he was not sacked but had actually been “retired” in the style of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Jo Bonfrere: the Dutch master?
On the eve of the 1991 final tournament, it was Hamilton’s turn to seethe as Dutchman Johannes “Jo” Bonfrere was brought in over his head as Technical Director.
The NFF was in the habit of parachuting in foreign, white coaches for its national teams. Seemingly it felt the Westerners not only better qualified (generally true), but also inherently more astute and worthy of respect from local players (false, bizarre… quite possibly racist).
There was an unedifying whiff of colonialism about it all.
Hamilton stayed on, but it was the second such blow to his prodigious ego. He was still smarting after being deposed as Nigeria men’s national coach by the arrival of Holland’s Clemens Westerhof in 1989.
On taking over, Westerhof asked Hamilton for videos of the male team’s recent matches. Hamilton sent a flunkey to snarl: “We’re football coaches, not cameramen”.
Westerhof’s introduction proved disastrous as he alienated several leading players and derailed Nigeria’s bid to reach World Cup Italia ’90.
Cameroon’s “Indomitable Lions” qualified instead and made history by dumping holders Argentina in the opening game then giving Bobby Robson’s England a fright in the quarter–finals.
Bonfrere spent his entire 22-year playing career with unfashionable MVV Maastricht, mostly in the top division of Dutch football. He had pitched up in Nigeria as Westerhof’s sidekick after a spell out of work.
Bonfrere later presided over Nigerian football’s finest hour, at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. His team of (ahem!) under-23s including Nwankwo Kanu and Taribo West carried off the gold.
A noted eccentric, bucktoothed Bonfrere subsequently quit the NFF in an ugly dispute over unpaid bonuses and meddling officials, before being enticed back as men’s senior coach for another bumper payday.
As recently as last month (April 2015) he was touting himself for another crack at the job.
Bonfrere’s treachery in taking Westerhof’s old job left the two former pals locked in a clownish lifelong feud. Westerhof recently (2014) branded Bonfrere a snake, an idiot and a crybaby.
Both men traded unseemly accusations of pocketing kickbacks on male Nigerian players’ transfers to professional European clubs. And taking backhanders to call-up prospective national team players.
None of the allegations were ever proved.
Players: Nigeria’s 1991 World Cup squad
The squad was allegedly an average of 18.6-years-old – still in its salad days and comfortably the youngest in the competition. Pictures suggest suspiciously tall and powerfully built 16 and 17-year-old girls.
Thirty-three year old centre-half Edith Eluma was supposedly fully 14 years older than the next oldest squad member.
But as the competition had no upper age limit, this obviously wasn’t age-cheating.
If anything it suggested that, rather than trying to gain an advantage with all their other age-cheating antics down the years, the Nigerians are simply not that big on record keeping.
Indeed, a few bright prospects were left out after being deemed too young, including “Marvellous” Mercy Akide and Yinka “the Gentle Giant” Kudaisi. Their day would come in later tournaments.
Another feature of the squad was its careful composition of exactly 50% Igbo athletes. This was a political hot potato in Nigerian football at the time.
Iconic goalkeeper Ann Chiejine (née Agumanu) took her place between the sticks.
Uche Eucharia (née Ngozi) went on to play at the 1995 World Cup and coached the Super Falcons at the 2011 edition in Germany. A born-again Christian, before the latter tournament she made a song and dance about booting lesbians out of her squad and was told to shut up by FIFA.
Uche was sacked later in 2011 when lightly-regarded Cameroon beat Nigeria to a place at the 2012 London Olympics.
The 1991 squad also contained controversial athletics ace Chioma Ajunwa, reigning African 200 metres champ. The enfant terrible of Nigerian sports, she quit soccer in a huff shortly after the World Cup, then got clobbered with a four-year drugs ban from 1992–1996.
After joining the Nigerian police force, she sensationally returned to scoop an Olympic gold medal at Atlanta ’96 in the long jump, posting a monster first round effort of 7.12 metres.
She also boasted a different birth date on her Olympic documents to the one supplied to FIFA.
Declared a “Member of the Order of Niger” by despot Sani Abacha and made a chief by her tribe, the irrepressible Ajunwa gave birth to triplets in 2012.
A tale of two skippers: Omagbemi and Okosieme
Florence Omagbemi, 16, was the original captain but was replaced by university-educated Nkiru Okosieme in the run-up to the 1991 finals. Okosieme – nicknamed “the headmistress” after imparting several crucial goals with her noggin – was deemed the better public speaker.
Omagbemi later branded Jo Bonfrere clueless, saying his appointment caused “all kinds of drama,” in a squad already riven by “cultural differences, financial issues, welfare and so on.”
In time, Omagbemi recaptured the armband when loquacious Okosieme was herself stripped of the captaincy. Okosieme’s crime? A TV interview which slated the federation’s equally ludicrous preparations for the 1995 World Cup in Sweden.
Final tournament: Nigeria at the 1991 Women’s World Cup
Prior to the tournament, Bonfrere whisked his charges off for a month’s training at the Dutch FA’s plush Sittard HQ in his native Limburg.
On arrival in Guangzhou, they found Chinese authorities had packed the stadia with massive but bewildered crowds. Unlikely candidates as football fans, they went nut-nut every time the physio ran on.
On the other hand, goals were greeted only with general hubbub – like the inside of a giant Wetherspoons pub.
Reality arrived with a jolt when Germany (who had qualified as West Germany – crushing England en route) sworded Nigeria’s motley collection of youngsters 4–0 in Jiangmen.
A gutsy showing in the second group game saw Italian great Carolina Morace break Nigerian hearts, hitting the only goal 12 minutes from time.
The third game was lost 2–0 to Taiwan, whose wily playmaker Chou Tai-ying – a veteran of the German Bundesliga – pulled the strings and notched the killer second goal.
They fared marginally better than the Ivory Coast team who went to China for the 1988 FIFA prototype World Cup and shipped 17 goals in their three reverses. Although Ivory Coast at least managed a goal.
Beyond that, there was not much else for an African team to live up to. Zambia had been pencilled in for the 1985 Mundialito (‘Little World Cup’) in Italy, but failed to materialise.
Despite the lack of on-field success, the Nigerian party reportedly managed plenty of scoring off the pitch.
A 2001 BBC article reported: “When he [Bonfrere] took the national women’s team, Super Falcons, to the inaugural World Cup in China in 1991, the side returned with defeats and tales of salacious sex romps between officials and players.”