On pitch, trou­bles are left far be­hind

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Kevin Bax­ter

VAN­COU­VER, Canada — First Nige­ria was the dar­ling of this Women’s World Cup, danc­ing and singing its way to a sur­pris­ing draw with pow­er­ful Swe­den, dur­ing which Nige­ria’s coach, Ed­win Okon, knelt to pray af­ter ev­ery goal.

Then it be­came the tour­na­ment’s vil­lain, with re­serve de­fender Ugo Njoku draw­ing a three-game sus­pen­sion fol­low­ing an in­ci­dent in which she threw an el­bow into the face of Aus­tralia’s Sa­man­tha Kerr, nearly break­ing her jaw.

But mov­ing rapidly be­tween ex­tremes is noth­ing new to women’s soc­cer in Nige­ria, where the girls play with great joy and beauty — well, most of them any­way — de­spite the fact many have known mostly poverty and de­pri­va­tion.

The team has a chance to make history Tues­day, when it meets the un­beaten U.S. in what could be a win­ner-

take-all group-play fi­nal. For the Amer­i­cans, the sce­nario is sim­ple: Win the game and they win the group, as­sur­ing them­selves of a much eas­ier route to the World Cup semi­fi­nals. The odds are much longer for Nige­ria, which needs a decisive vic­tory and some help from Swe­den in its game against Aus­tralia.

But then, most of the play­ers on Nige­ria’s ros­ter beat longer odds just to get here.

They have names like Pre­cious, Per­petua, Bless­ing, Loveth and De­sire. Two of them are teenagers and five oth­ers have yet to turn 21. One was raised in Ok­la­homa, but 14 oth­ers play for clubs in Nige­ria, where they faced count­less chal­lenges.

All that dis­ap­pears when the play­ers take the field, though.

“That’s just like an African tra­di­tion. Be­fore the games we dance and clap and make some kinds of jokes within our­selves,” for­ward Asisat Oshoala said. “In Nige­ria that’s what we do just to make sure ev­ery­one is set for the game.”

Oshoala wouldn’t talk about the poverty in her coun­try, but ex­am­ples of it dot the Nige­rian ros­ter.

De­fender Josephine Chuk­wunonye, 23, grew up in a sin­gle room with her par­ents and six sib­lings. They would still be there if not for the mod­est salary Chuk­wunonye made play­ing for the gov­ern­ment-run Rivers State FC and her bonuses from the na­tional team. (Last week, Chuk­wunonye signed a con­tract with the Washington Spirit of the Na­tional Women’s Soc­cer League.)

For­ward Fran­cisca Ordega comes from Gboko in Nige­ria’s south­ern Benue state, an un­der­de­vel­oped area with a high crime rate and even higher un­em­ploy­ment.

And Oshoala, a 20-yearold from La­gos, was re­peat­edly dis­suaded from play­ing soc­cer as a girl. It wasn’t cul­tur­ally cor­rect, she was told. And be­sides, there was no sup­port for the women’s game.

But now, play­ing for Liv- er­pool in the Women’s Premier League, she is Eng­land’s fe­male player of the year and, many be­lieve, the best young player to come out of Africa.

None of that can mask the tragedy of what is un­fold­ing back home in Nige­ria, though, where Africa’s most pop­u­lous coun­try re­mains wracked by deadly eth­nic and re­li­gious ten­sions. Its World Cup team hasn’t tried to hide that. On the con­trary, the team has ded­i­cated its per­for­mance here to the 276 girls kid­napped 14 months ago by Nige­ria’s home­grown Boko Haram Is­lamic ex­trem­ists group.

The tenac­ity the play­ers dis­play on the field? It’s the spirit of the kid­napped girls, says for­ward De­sire Opara­nozie. And in­side the team — un­like in much of Nige­rian so­ci­ety — there are no dis­tinc­tions based on faith or eth­nic back­ground; ev­ery­one wears the same uni­form.

“We are one — Mus­lim, Chris­tian, we serve the same God,” said Ordega, who scored the ty­ing goal in the 87th minute against Swe­den. “So with that [comes] the pas­sion, the grace. When you sing and dance, you feel the pas­sion of God. On the field and out­side the pitch.

“That gives us joy. We never have to feel pres­sure or ten­sion.” But im­pa­tience? Maybe. A nine-time African cham­pion, Nige­ria is one of seven coun­tries to have qual­i­fied for ev­ery Women’s World Cup. Yet it has ad­vanced past the group stage only once, has won just three of 21 Cup matches over­all and been outscored by 37 goals. This year it was drawn into the tour­na­ment’s Group of Death with three teams ranked among the top 10 in the world — in­clud­ing Tues­day’s op­po­nent, the U.S., which is No. 2.

“For me it’s not a group of death, it’s a group of sur­vival,” Ordega said.

“It is an op­por­tu­nity for us. Ev­ery­one be­lieved that Nige­ria al­ways is knocked out in the group stage, so we all agreed on one thing: This time around, it is go­ing to be dif­fer­ent.

“We want to give our coun­try another im­pres­sion, not just in our coun­try but the whole world, that we can do it.”

Nige­ria’s elec­tric start against Swe­den, when it ral­lied from a two-goal deficit to earn a tie, inspired thoughts that this would in­deed be the tour­na­ment in which the coun­try fi­nally broke through. How­ever, the feel­good story of this World Cup was rewrit­ten when Njoko drove her right el­bow into Kerr’s face in an off-the-ball in­ci­dent in the wan­ing min­utes of a 2-0 loss to Aus­tralia on Fri­day.

Em­bar­rassed and up­set, Nige­ria’s soc­cer fed­er­a­tion scolded the play­ers, damp­en­ing the joy and spon­tane­ity that had made the team so good and so much fun to watch.

But in an emo­tional play­ers-only meet­ing Sun­day, the women promised not to let the sus­pen­sion be the last­ing mem­ory of Nige­ria’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in this World Cup.

And on Mon­day, Oshoala said the play­ers took a short walk around Van­cou­ver, stop­ping to pose for pic­tures and sign au­to­graphs while try­ing to clear their minds for Tues­day.

“We should not get dis­tracted. We need to stay to­gether,” said Pasadena’s Ka­sia Muoto, a for­mer na­tional team in­vi­tee who is now Nige­ria’s men­tal con­di­tion­ing coach and psy­chol­o­gist. “We need to dance our butts off in the tun­nel and play our butts off even harder when the whis­tle blows to start the game.

“They are al­ready win­ners, and know­ing that — as well as know­ing the world re­al­izes that — should ig­nite them. We agreed to take our spir­its to a new height and to play ball fairly, leav­ing ev­ery­thing out on the field Tues­day.”

‘That’s just like an African tra­di­tion. Be­fore the games we dance and clap … that’s what we do just to make sure ev­ery­one is set for the game.’

— ASISAT OSHOALA, above, for­ward for Nige­ria

Jewel Sa­mad AFP/Getty Im­ages

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