Falcons begin quest for 10th title, battle old foes, Banyana Banyana in Rabat.

Nigeria’s quest for a 10th Africa Women Cup of Nations title begins today in Rabat where they meet old foes South Africa. It has been described as the biggest clash of the group stage of the competition as it pits teams, who have become accustomed to meeting in the final match of the competition.

Nigeria had been the victor when it mattered most, winning the last AWCON title by beating the Banyana Banyana in the 2018 final in Ghana.

But the last time the team met in a competitive game, the South African ran away with a 4-2 defeat of Super Falcons, in Lagos of all places. That competition was the Aisha Buhari Cup, which members of the Nigerian side said was a tiny blip in their illustrious history. To them, it would not count when the sides file out today.

The Aisha Cup loss was Coach Randy Waldrum’s first test of African football and he says his team is in a better position to face South Africa.

Waldrum has made some changes to the team that faced South Africa two years ago, bringing in some Diaspora-born players to beef up the squad.

Apart from winning Nigeria’s 10th crown, Waldrum is also desirous of leading the Super Falcons to next year’s World Cup. Speaking on the eve of the team’s departure for Morocco, Waldrum said: “World Cup qualification has always been the goal as much as we want to win the championship.

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“I think we have prepared well. The one difficulty we had is that I never felt we had our entire best team together. I’m a little concerned we haven’t had the best team together over the year but it gave me an opportunity to look at a lot of young players to bring into the team.”

On the new additions to his team, the U.S.-born tactician said: “We have found some new blood with players like Ifeoma [Onumonu], Esther [Okoronkwo] unfortunately, is injured and won’t be participating.

“But young players like Vivian [Ikechukwu] that we brought into the team are playing extremely well, so we feel like we’ve got a lot of good options. Gift Monday is coming off a good season.

“Having Asisat [Oshoala] back healthy is a big plus. I’m excited about the young player [Chinonyerem] Macleans playing in Poland right now.”

He says the combination of players with youthful energy and some experienced stars will bode well for Nigeria, adding that it gives him interesting options to work with.

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“We have a lot of players that can interchange. Rasheedat [Ajibade] for example, has been playing in midfield for us, but we can play her upfront if we need. Toni Payne is the same, so I think we have really good attacking qualities in our team,” he enthused.

Team captain, Onome Ebi, who is the oldest player at the competition at 39, has featured in five FIFA World Cup finals, and still looks vibrant enough to feature at the FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand next year:

“For me, it is a good thing that we are playing South Africa first. It is a strong team and that will make our team to be strong and to give our best from the very beginning.
“I have won this trophy several times but I still have the hunger to win it, and also to go to a sixth World Cup. We will look first to pick up the World Cup ticket, and then the trophy.”

Nigeria will be without first choice goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie, who is suspended for receiving yellow cards in different matches of the qualifying series (against Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire), meaning Israel-based Tochukwu Oluehi could be between the sticks for the Super Falcons against the Banyana.

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While Waldrum believes his team is fired up for a good outing today, South Africa’s ‘taliswoman,’ Thembi Kgatlana, says the match against the reigning champions will provide a major boost for women’s football in Africa.

With a host of stars in action, such as Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala and Kgatlana, who plays for Atletico Madrid, the 26-year-old believes today’s match will be a showpiece event.

Kgatlana told BBC Sports Africa, yesterday, “It’s good for women’s football because even outside Africa, we know a lot of people are going to be watching that match.

“We have a lot of players in Nigeria playing in Atleti and in Barcelona, and in South Africa we have players in AC Milan and in a lot of big leagues, so it’s going to be attracting a lot of attention.

“It’s going to create a good impact on women’s football, not only in Africa, but in the world as well. I think that’s what we need for African women’s football.”

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