Colin Udoh, Special to ESPNAug 4, 2023, 05:16 AM ET
CloseItinerant writer. Engineer in a previous incarnation. One time Black Belt. Lover of football, flirter with other sports.
It has been nearly 25 years since Nigeria’s Super Falcons made it to the quarterfinals of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, and all that stands in their way of repeating that feat on Monday are Lauren James and England’s Lionesses.
A last-minute free kick from Brazil in extra time put paid to the ’99 team’s dreams of making it to the semifinals, but by then, their swashbuckling attacking style, multi-coloured hairstyles and flamboyant celebrations had already captured the collective imagination of the football world.
Mercy Akide*, the star of that team, was subsequently named the first-ever African Woman Player of the Year, finished in the Top 10 of the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year, and became the first-ever woman from the continent to play professional football abroad.
Nigeria has gone on to become a juggernaut on the continent, and the Super Falcons now ply their trade all over the world, with stars like Barcelona’s Asisat Oshoala and Paris FC’s Chiamaka Nnadozie making regular headlines.
Nigeria legend Mercy Akide, seen here in 2002 with USWNT legend Julie Foudy, represented the San Diego Spirit in the USA’s inaugural professional women’s league. Jeff Gross/Getty Images
But they’ve rarely managed to turn on-talent paper into real world success outside Africa, and therein lies the challenge against Chelsea superstar James and her company of forwards.
Akide, who was on the 1995 World Cup team when Nigeria first played England, says their improvement has been phenomenal, telling ESPN: “We lost to them then, and that was a different team, but this team is better than the one that beat us.
“They are very mobile, very crafty and our midfielders cannot give them an inch of space to operate.”
England’s ruthless consistency is no fluke. In James, they have a genuine talent of very dangerous ability and her combination with Lauren Hemp and Rachel Daly upfront, brings a dynamism and fluidity that teams have struggled to handle.
“She [James] is very technical in front of goal,” Akide said. “They cannot give her even a small inch, because she can manipulate the ball and she can strike it well too.
“She plays very gracefully. That is the thing that fascinates me just watching her. She makes football so easy and that is why our players have to mark her really tight.”
Lauren James is a massive threat that Nigeria will need to neutralise if they are to advance past England to reach the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals for only the second time. Isabel Infantes/PA Images via Getty Images
That will be no easy task, as James tends to ghost around into pockets of blind space. But coach Randy Waldrum’s team, so far at this tournament, have shown that they can keep their shape and weather an attacking siege while also offering threats of their own in transition.
Waldrum has also built a team so miserly at the back they have only conceded twice in three games. That is the lowest number of goals ever for this team at the World Cup, and it is built on the back of very disciplined defensive structure.
That discipline at the back will come under very serious scrutiny when they play against England, who have scored eight times so far at this World Cup. Although six of those came in their final group game against China, the Lionesses have proven to be regular high scorers prior to flying to Australia.
In the qualifiers for the World Cup, they scored 80 goals in 10 games. On their way to the UEFA Women’s Championship title, they were only slightly less ruthless, corking 22 goals in six games, including an 8-0 walloping of Norway, 5-0 over Northern Ireland and 4-0 over Sweden, in addition to narrow wins over Spain and then Germany in the Final.
A front three of Rasheedat Ajibade, Ify Onumonu and Uchenna Kanu have brought their own style of dynamism, pace and link-up play that has proven effective if not for scoring goals, but for creating a ton of chances which keeps opposition defenses honest.
Can this Nigeria side, so talented on paper, convert their individual form for their clubs into a team effort enough to beat England at the World Cup, and reach their first quarterfinal in 25 years? Joe Prior/Visionhaus via Getty Images
There is also a bit of good news for the Nigerians. Desire Oparanozie, who is yet to kick a ball in anger, has been training with the team and looks likely to play some part. Her excellent hold up play, strength and ability to work something from nothing in close quarters will be sorely needed as the Super Falcons plan for their toughest test of the tournament.
At the back, both Michelle Alozie and Ashleigh Plumptre will have their hands full dealing with Hemp and Daly while Halimatu Asinde will need help from Toni Payne and Ajibade to contain the sneaky runs from James.
Assistant coach Terry Eguaoje admits that it will be a tough ask, telling ESPN: “We don’t underestimate those ladies. They are very, very good.
“It will be a question of us identifying and exploiting their weaknesses, while working to limit our own weaknesses and taking advantage of our strengths.
“We know they have some dangerous players, and we will account for them in our strategy. But they know we also have dangerous players too, so they will also have to be careful how they come at us.”
England are the bookies’ runaway favourites to reel this in, but the Super Falcons have shown that they are in history-making mood. And their target is to be on the same hallowed pedestal as that Class of 1999.
NOTE: ESPN writer Colin Udoh is married to Mercy Akide