In the usual post-match analysis of soccer matches, many players and coaches like to ascribe their team’s success to tactics and skills. Some openly talk about God’s influence.
One such team is the Nigerian Women’s U-17 soccer team that participated in the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup hosted by India Oct. 11 to 29.
The Flamingoes, as the Nigerian team is called, won the bronze medal in the competition, and while it would have been convenient for the players and coach to claim credit for the feat, they credited it mostly to God.
This was manifest in the quarter-final stage of the competition when Nigeria confronted the United States of America.
At the end of regulation time, Nigeria triumphed 4-3 on penalty kicks after tying 1-1 in regulation time. Penalty kicks are basically winning a lottery and it turned out to be Nigeria’s day, but the Nigerian players and coach believed it was God who made their victory possible.
Bankole Olowookere, the Nigerian coach, said explicitly the victory was made possible by God.
A report published by Soccer Wire describes a more technical cause: “While the U.S. dominated for long stretches of the match, outshooting the Flamingoes 27-8 and piling up 15 corner kicks to four, the young Americans only put three shots on goal and in the end, the lack of efficiency in front of the net cost them. … The USA could not turn its dominance into another goal despite numerous quality chances, and the match went straight to penalties.”
Asked by a reporter how he felt when the U.S. team was piling pressure on his team in the dying minutes of the match, Oloowokere said: “I just prayed that God should come and take control. As at that time, there was nothing we could do. The girls had given it all. They were marking, doing their best. There were a couple of mistakes here and there but that’s football.”
Speaking on what the victory meant to him, the coach said: “I feel on top of the world. I feel happy, I feel great. I feel making Nigeria proud at this time is one of the best things I can ever do for my generation. I thank God that I came to this world and have been able to make my mark. And being part of the people that contribute to the growth of Nigeria is a thing of joy to my life, to my family and those who love me.”
In her reaction after the quarter-final match, Omamuzo Edafe, a Nigerian player said: “I was not under pressure because I believe in God, and I believe in myself that we are going to make Nigeria proud. We have the confidence to get to the final and to carry the cup back to Nigeria.”
Alvine Dah-Zossu, another team member, expressed her joy about Nigeria’s victory over the U.S., saying she’s “so excited, because this is the first time a Nigerian Women’s U-17 team has ever made it to the semi-finals.”
Asked how she felt while the Flamingoes were under pressure, Dah-Zossu replied, “My mind was shaking but I was just praying. I know that God brought us this far and he won’t leave us halfway. We just kept on praying that God should help us out and he saw us through. We are 100% sure we have what it takes to push to the final.”
During the penalty shootout, defender Miracle Usani’s kick was saved by the U.S. keeper, Valentina Amaral, but the keeper had stepped out of line before the shot was taken and the play was redone. The player scored this time, and her joy was also palpable during her interview: “I’m so happy, I’m so excited. I’m so grateful to God that we won this match. I’m so, so happy.”
“I know God in his infinite mercy will help us … map out strategy to take us to that final.”
Inspired by the victory against the U.S., Coach Olowookere expressed hope that the team would make it to the final. “We have our ways of doing things. Now, it’s about how do we get to the final. We can do more. I do tell my girls, if we have done well now, we can do better. If we can get to the semi-final, who says we cannot get to the final. So that’s the strategy we need to be putting up together and I know God in his infinite mercy will help us … map out strategy to take us to that final. And I think that’s what millions of Nigerians will be expecting, I mean praying for, to happen.”
Olowookere was effusive in his gratitude to God: “First of all, I just have to give (as he raised his hand upward in gratitude to God) all praise to God Almighty who has been doing it all this while and also to millions of Nigerians. I want to appreciate them, thank them so much for what they are doing, and the other appreciation goes to the Nigeria Football Federation.”
But God’s favor didn’t happen for the Nigerian team in the semi-final as they hoped. The Flamingoes lost to Colombia on penalties. A FIFA report on the match shows it could have ended in Nigeria’s favor had they been lucky.
The Nigerians would have the laugh, however, as they beat their German opponents in yet another penalty shootout in the third-place match to win the bronze. That’s a historic achievement as no African country has come this far in the biennial FIFA competition.
While some observers may have been struck by the prayerful ways of the Nigerian U-17 team, it is not new to the country’s women’s teams.
At the 2015 FIFA senior Women’s World Cup, the God factor was constant in responses by the Nigerian senior team called the Super Falcons.
Responding to a question by a journalist at a news conference about the Nigerian team, Edwin Okon, then the Super Falcons coach, said: “Nobody can predict the Nigerian team. Only one man up there can predict the team of Nigeria, which is Almighty God. He’s in charge of the team. So, if you read it A, he gives you B, if you read it C, he gives you E. That is (the) Nigerian team for you because they are fully determined and fully equipped with the power of the Almighty Father.”
Anthony Akaeze is a Nigerian-born freelance journalist who lives in Houston. He covers Africa for BNG.
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