Chiamaka Nnadozie’s Nigeria lineup had two chances hit the crossbar in a scoreless draw, and only missed out on the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals after losing a penalty shootout against England.
By taking the European champions right to the wire, the Super Falcons proved, once again, that rankings are less important than respect for rival teams under the tournament’s expanded 32-team format. In the group stage, Nigeria held Olympic champion Canada to a 0-0 draw, upset co-host Australia 3-2 and advanced to the knockout stage after a 0-0 draw with Ireland.
A late red card for England forward Lauren James for stomping on Nigeria defender Michelle Alozie took the focus off two tight halves of football on Monday night that could have gone either way.
Ashleigh Plumptre’s left-foot strike cannoned into the crossbar in the 17th minute and her right-foot shot, moments after the ball rebounded, forced a diving save from England goalkeeper Mary Earps. Uchenna Kanu’s two second-half headers went within inches.
Had any of those chances found the back of the net, it’s likely Nigeria would have gone on to win a knockout match for the first time in nine trips to the Women’s World Cup and England would have followed the defending champion US team, No. 2-ranked Germany, Canada and Brazil through the exit.
“It’s not the end for Nigeria,” Nnadozie, Nigeria’s goalkeeper and inspirational team leader, said as she left the locker room at the 2023 World Cup for the last time. “We go back home, rest and come back stronger.”
“Coming to the World Cup we had so many dreams. So sad today, but it’s not the end,” she added. “We’ve been playing tough, tough games. There’s no easy team. We respect them all. Right now, we have to work harder and come back stronger again.”
Concerns by some critics that the expansion from 24 to 32 teams would lead to blow out scores have eased.
Yes, there were some big margins, but those weren’t restricted to the eight nations on debut: one was England’s 6-1 win over Asian champion China, a World Cup finalist in 1999, and another was 2011 champion Japan pounding another title contender, Spain, 4-0.
Morocco was routed 6-0 by Germany in its debut game at the global tournament but rebounded with wins over South Korea and Colombia to advance to the knockout stage at the expense of the Germans.
Nigeria was ranked 40th in June but the players and coach Randy Waldrum never had any doubts they could mix it with the top teams on the biggest stage for the women’s game.
“We’re not surprised to get to this stage. We believe in ourselves,” Nnadozie said. “We knew we could come here and go far in the tournament. Football happened to us. We just have to keep our heads up.”
Plumptre grew up playing as a forward in England’s youth teams before making a choice to represent Nigeria, and didn’t regret it for a minute.
“Football for me is more of a life journey that I’m on. I wanted to explore more of my heritage,” she said. “For me, this, even though it’s football, it’s learning. For me, there’s nothing more fulfilling. I’m disappointed in the result, but grateful I’ve had the opportunity.”
Now a centre back, the 25-year-old Plumptre said the Super Falcons had set a higher bar for future performances.
“We have the expectation that we should be competing with the top-ranked teams,” she said. “We should be pushing them to the very end. We can be getting results against them. Because, not only this game have we done that, but we’ve done that throughout the group stage as well.
“We’ve proven that in this tournament and I’m sure we can do that going forward.”
Nigeria’s American coach Randy Waldrum silenced his pre-tournament critics by preparing a team that went within the thickness of a crossbar of reaching the last eight at the World Cup.
“I take away that we can be and probably should be one of the top teams in the world,” he said. “I certainly hope that Fifa ranking goes from 42 to a better number. More importantly, I think we’ve just shown that we’re capable of playing with anybody.”
Waldrum said his players and Nigeria’s supporters should be proud of Super Falcons.
“We gave everything. I certainly hope that people back in Nigeria appreciate the job that they’ve done while they’re here and I would hope that they’re happy, not upset,” he said. “I think we made the country proud and hopefully, around the world.”
- An AP report