The NWPL duo shined brightest for the Super Falcons during their last round of international fixtures.
The Super Eagles are fresh off a 2-0 win over the Central African Republic in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, putting their hopes for Qatar back on track after an unexpected 1-0 loss against the same opponent in Lagos.
All manner of criticisms were levied against coach Gernot Rohr and one which has been a recurring theme is his supposed defiance on calling up home-based players in the Nigeria Professional Football League and relying too much on the foreign-based players. The moment the foreign-based fail to turn up or inspire, there’s that instant talk of the home- based potentially doing better if they played, according to these enthusiasts.
Could there actually be some truth in it?
Well, a demonstration of these claims was seen on the women’s side of the national team where two home-based players in Gift Monday and Vivian Ikechukwu stole the entire spotlight for the Super Falcons during the Aisha Buhari Cup tournament held last month in Lagos.
The Falcons, as the reigning and most successful African female team, were the obvious favorites to win the maiden edition of the competition, but they fell short by losing 4-2 to South Africa in their final game after a nervy 2-0 win over Mali in their first.
A team that featured foreign-based stars like Desire Oparanozie, four-time African Women Player of the Year Asisat Oshoala, Rita Chikwelu, Uchenna Kanu and Francesca Ordega, all failed to turn up when needed, but it was rather Monday and Ikechukwu who play for FC Robo of Lagos and Rivers Angels of Port Harcourt in the Nigeria Women Premier League respectively, that made statements, both ladies coming off the bench to score braces against Mali and South Africa respectively and finishing as the tournament’s top scorers.
In an exclusive interview with Pulse, the two ladies shared what the feeling was like to come on and bail their team out when they weren’t in a commanding position on the pitch.
“I felt really great and very happy. I wasn’t expecting to score two goals to make that change, but it just came like that,” Gift said.
For Ikechukwu, it was a bitter sweet moment for her because her quick brace in the game against Banyana Banyana where the Falcons were down 3-0 at halftime, did not end in victory.
“I am happy I got an early brace and it doesn’t really matter if you are starting a match or not,” the former Abia Angels player stated.
“I think the most important thing as a player is your impact in the game when you are being introduced. Coach Randy [Waldrum] used to say that good players also come from the bench and I’m happy that his own tactics paid off for him in the sense that I came in and made impact.
“I tried to make sure that we recover from going three goals down because the brace came as early as possible, but it’s the game of football, s*** happens and it is what it is. And sadly, I wasn’t happy because the goals were not enough to save the day.”
Reflecting on the what ultimately didn’t see the Falcons win the Aisha Buhari Cup, Ikechukwu acknowledges that it’s time for the Nigerian women to wake up as other African female sides are rising to task of challenging their status as number one on the continent, while Gift sees the need for togetherness and stronger team spirit.
“I would say that day was just a bad day for us. And I think in football it happens once in a while,” says Vivian.
“You are expected to win a match but the shocker comes. That was what really happened and it’s a wakeup call for us so that we know that other teams are trying to meet up with the Super Falcons of Nigeria. We don’t need to relent or relax. That’s the way I see it.”
In Gift’s words: “I don’t know what really went wrong but what we need to do as a team is to imbibe more fighting spirit, a never-say-die spirit that keeps us on top even when we know we are down and we can come back and win. I just think we need to bond as a team.”
It is thus evident that home-based players can make their mark in the national team. After Gift’s performance against Mali, it was thought that Falcons boss, Waldrum, would opt for the FC Robo forward, but she once again started from the bench and came on in the second half.
When quizzed by Pulse if they would like to see more starting shirts, both Ikechukwu and Monday had the same views that it was down to what the coach wants and all they want is to make their contribution whenever given the chance.
“Like I said earlier the most important thing is that I’ve made impact in the team so the rest is left for the coach to decide who and who are starting because we have a lot of great players in the team, so whichever way, I think I’m cool with it,” Vivian explains.
And according to Gift: “That is left for the coach. I’ve done my part as a player, I’ve tried my best, I’ve tried to make myself worthy to be in the team, so it’s left for the coach to decide if I’m going to be playing more matches for the Super Falcons.”
Indeed, Ikechukwu and Monday could be given another chance at making a name for themselves as they were both called up to the team that will face Ghana in a double header 2022 Africa Women Cup of Nations qualifier on October 20 and 24.
Back to the Super Eagles, it is not as though Rohr has completely overlooked home-based players during his time as coach. He has been able to give opportunities to the likes of Gabriel Okechukwu, Junior Lokosa, Stephen Eze, Ndifreke Effiong, Ikouwem Udoh, Anayo Iwuala among others. One problem though is that the moment these men are in the national team spotlight, it does not take too long before they earn moves abroad. This has happened to the aforementioned names, Iwuala being the most recent moving to Tunisian giants Esperance from Enyimba.
If anything is clear, playing for the national team is a stepping stone for a move abroad. This was the same for Godfrey Oboabona and Sunday Mba who performed well for the Eagles during the triumphant 2013 Africa Cup of Nations campaign in South Africa under then-coach Stephen Keshi who named six home-based players in his 23-man squad. It was not long the deals started coming with Oboabona and Mba leaving Sunshine Stars and Warri Wolves to join Turkish Super Lig club side Caykur Rizepor and Bastia in France respectively.
Ikechukwu and Monday are equally looking to such an opportunity to move abroad as they believe they have done enough back home for it to become a reality and follow the footsteps of the county’s best ladies that took the same path.
“As a home-based player, I think I have achieved everything and it’s time to move,” Ikechukwu asserted.
“Football is all about stages and I think the stage I am right now, I’m ready for the world, let me just put it that way. Whichever way it comes, I will take things one step at a time and I want to take every opportunity that comes my way.”
Gift meanwhile puts it in one simple sentence: “I’ve given value and I’m ready to move if that opportunity comes.”
With home-based players getting moves abroad the moment they shine in their rare national team call-ups, does this still make a case for more inclusion knowing they won’t be on the local scene for long?
You be the judge. The debate certainly continues and isn’t ending any time soon.
Kunle is an avid writer with interest in topics on sports, politics and health. His articles have featured in Goal.com, Opera News and Vanguard News. He holds a Bachelors and Masters degree in International Relations and is an advocate for people living with Hydrocephalus and other neurological conditions. Follow him on Twitter: @kfayiga
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