It’s not just a show of faith from Nige­ria

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Kevin Bax­ter kevin.bax­ter@la­

WIN­NIPEG, Canada — The Women’s World Cup is only three days old, but al­ready a Cin­derella team has emerged.

Cin­derella, you’ll re­mem­ber, was a lik­able if te­na­cious un­der­dog who played a lit­tle over her head. And that de­scrip­tion cer­tainly fits the na­tional team from Nige­ria, which ral­lied to tie heav­ily fa­vored Swe­den, 3-3, in the group-play opener for both teams Mon­day.

There’s very lit­tle not to like about th­ese Africans. They’re fast, cre­ative, tire­less and an­i­mated. Oh, and af­ter they score, the coaches and most of the play­ers kneel and pray.

“Prayer is a key,” said Coach Ed­win Okon. “The Nige­rian team is a pray­ing team. To tell God thank you.”

Okon should also thank God for play­ers like 20-yearold Asisat Oshoala and 21year-old Ngozi Okobi, who scored Mon­day’s sec­ond- half goals, then won­dered what all the fuss was about.

Nige­ria came into the tour­na­ment hav­ing been given lit­tle chance to ad­vance out of pool play — or even to win a game while there, some­thing it has done just once in its last three World Cups. It is the only coun­try in its four-team group — which in­cludes Australia and the U.S., in ad­di­tion to Swe­den — that is out­side the top 10 in the FIFA world rank­ings. Not that it mat­tered. “We don’t think about the rank­ing,” said Okon, whose team is 33rd in the FIFA poll. “We don’t think about whether they are No. 1 and we are No. 90. We don’t look at that.

“We look at what you do on the pitch with the ball and with­out the ball. And we try to match you, strength to strength.”

There’s one other thing Nige­ria shares with Cin­derella: Nei­ther was sur­prised by their suc­cess. Which is why Nige­ria, which has reached the sec­ond round just once in six pre­vi­ous World Cups, is hop­ing to stay at the ball longer this year.

“More is yet to come,” a con­fi­dent Okobi promised. “To beat Swe­den, that is what I had in mind. And I know that’s what all the play­ers and the coaches had in mind.” Eyes of Canada

Ap­prox­i­mately 1.8 mil­lion Cana­di­ans watched the host coun­try’s open­ing-game victory over China on tele­vi­sion Satur­day, mak­ing it the coun­try’s most-watched Women’s World Cup match ever.

The au­di­ence peaked at 2.6 mil­lion in ex­tra time, when Christine Sin­clair knocked home a penalty kick for a 1-0 victory.

Kevin C. Cox Getty Images

NGOZI OKOBI is raised aloft as the Nige­rian team cel­e­brates its tie against heav­ily fa­vored Swe­den.

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