When the Confederation of African Football first officially organised a continental football championship for women footballers in 1998, Nigeria played the big brother by hosting the tournament and by reason of hard work won the competition.
Prior to that inaugural Africa Women Cup of Nations (AWCON) tournament in 1998, the tournament, which was known as the African Women’s Championship (AWC) until 2015, was played on home and away basis in the first two editions in 1991 and 1995, respectively, with Nigeria winning on both occasions.
Almost three decades later, the Super Falcons, the country‘s women’s national football team have established themselves as the most potent team on the continent, winning 10 out of 12 possible titles with individual Falcons such as Mercy Akide-Udoh, Stella Mbachu, Florence Omagbemi, Perpetua Nkwocha and lately Asisat Oshoala celebrated for their exploits
In contrast, the men’s team have notched only three Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) titles since their first success in 1980, and can hardly boast of top performers in the years after the likes of Nwankwo Kanu and Austin Okocha retired from international football.
Unfortunately, the Super Falcons that brought the country more laurels are, most often than not, subjected to mistreatment by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF).
“A lot of people have reservations about how the NFF is managing the women’s team,” said Sam Ahmadu, a sports journalist with interest in women sports globally.
“They are the ones bringing smiles to the over 150 million Nigerians,” Bola Jegede, one of the earliest female club owners in Nigeria, once remarked.
After winning the last AWCON, held in Cameroon in 2016, the players were denied prompt payment of their allowances. The Ministry of Sports and the NFF claimed they were cash-strapped and the public protest by the players, on their return from Cameroon, lasted for days. Even the team’s coaches were owed up to nine months’ salary at the time.
“These people don’t really care about us,” a player who wanted to be anonymous told the Guardian then.
Another player said the NFF’s treatment was abysmal, comparing their fate to that of helpless orphans.
“None of us could buy anything for our loved ones back home just because there was no single money to do shopping,” she said. “We were treated like orphans.”
More appalling was the Sports Minister Solomon Dalung’s comment that the Ministry did not expect the team to win the tournament in Cameroon in spite of its imperious record in Africa.
Sports analysts said such pejorative comments about the team shows how the country’s sports authorities think of women’s football.
“The NFF are just pretending to be serious about women’s football,” noted Ifeanyi Ibeh.
“Not even the U-17 team comes close to the Super Falcons in terms of success and achievements. But the level of neglect these women face at the hand of the NFF is a terrible thing.”
Eventually, the girls and their coaches got what was due to them. But the problem of the team did not end there. And these problems were perhaps because of their gender.
In 2016, NFF vice president, Seyi Akinwunmi, blamed the failure of the Nigerian girls to qualify for the Rio Olympics on perceived rampant lesbianism among players.
“People are afraid to talk about it. The coaches also take advantage of the girls, so there is much more to build in women’s football,” Akinwunmi noted.
Although Akinwunmi did not name any player in his accusation, his stance showed a biased mindset that is as damaging to the reputation of the players and to the office as a senior official. In fact, such behaviour is symptomatic of overarching homophobia sexism in Nigeria, a country steeped in unyielding patriarchy.
“The lesbian label is used to define the boundaries of acceptable female behaviour in a patriarchal culture, American professor P. Griffin said in her article ‘Homophobia in Women Sports: The Fear That Divides Us’.
“When a woman is called a lesbian, she knows she is out of bounds… Because women’s sport has been labeled a lesbian activity, women in sport are particularly sensitive and vulnerable to the use of the lesbian label to intimidate them.”
Moreover, the team was almost abandoned after their last AWCON tournament in Cameroon. There was no camping; not even a match was played in more than eight months after the championship. On the other hand, the Super Eagles played a number of friendlies to keep them together ahead of the last World Cup held in Russia.
The only international friendly the team has played since December 2016 was against France and the Falcons lost that match 8-0, being its heaviest defeat in decades. Many women’s football analysts believed the lack of regular international friendlies for the girls was most likely responsible for their abysmal responsible.
“To be honest, I think we didn’t have adequate preparation going into this game, taking into consideration the fact that we were inactive for as long as we were – 16 months,” said Super Falcons striker, Desire Oparanozie.
On Monday, UEFA declared that it will increase the funding for women’s football development across Europe by 50 percent. CAF, on the other hand, has not taken substantial steps to improve the women’s game.
There was the first-ever women’s football symposium held in March that hit the right tonal notes. However, as with most times, very little has been implemented regarding recommendations from the discourse, with the continental body’s funding of the women’s game still very poor.
CAF does not have women’s U-17 and U-20 tournaments and the AWCON is limited to just eight teams, while the AFCON just got bumped up to a 24-team tournament from 16 teams. The total prize money for the men’s Cup of Nations is $16,400,000, while the participants at the upcoming AWCON in Ghana will be paid only $250,000.
Though the underlying cause isn’t exactly clear, the marketability and viewership of the men’s game in African football and globally trumps the women’s game. However, the huge gulf in the pay-out by CAF to participants in the men and women’s game portrays a body not willing to address the gender gap.
Developmentally, the women’s game suffers; promotion of the sport at the grassroots to encourage girls to play the sport is really dismal. Perhaps the girls won’t even want to when the huge pay gap and preferential treatment of boys stare them in the face.