Sports

Is the Super Falcons disadvantaged even on Nigerian soil, with South Africa better poised for the Olympics?

Nigeria will face South Africa over two legs in the fourth and final round of the qualifying campaign for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France.

The first leg is scheduled for the main bowl of the MKO Abiola Stadium in Abuja on Friday, 5 April 2024.

The return leg for the 51,000-capacity Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, four days later.

There is little to separate these two teams as they are the highest-ranking teams on the continent.

South Africa are the reigning African champions: they outclassed all-comers in 2022 to lift the Women Africa Cup of Nations title for the first time in Morocco.

Nigeria’s Super Falcons wore that crown with distinction before the South Africans dethroned them.

Nothing can sweep away the Falcons’ pedigree lightly, though, with the West Africans having won the WAFCON title nine of the 12 times it was contested.

While the Nigerian ladies have dominated the African football landscape for the best part of four decades, South Africa have shown they can level up in recent seasons.

Nigeria still boast head-to-head superiority between the two teams with six victories.

Yet, no other African team has beaten the Super Falcons more times (four times) than the Banyana Banyana.

In fact, when Nigeria lost 4-2 to South Africa in the Aisha Buhari Cup played in Lagos in 2021, it was the first time any African country would score four goals against the Super Falcons.

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Simply put, the two teams are equally matched, and only fine margins will determine the winner of this crucial Olympic playoff.

However, South Africa appear to have the edge in the battle of the ‘fine margins’.

The Super Falcons host the first leg in Abuja, but South Africa are the team that looks better organised on Nigerian soil.

The South Africans arrived in Nigeria on Sunday, March 31st, with 17 national team members.

The Nigerian camp, right on home soil, did not open until 24 hours later. And when it did, only three players arrived in time for the opening rituals, including captain Rasheedat Ajibade.

With their flight jackets off, South Africa got straight to work and trained every day since arrival, acclimatising to the weather and cranking the team spirit to high levels.

The Super Falcons, on the other hand, had 18 of 22 invited players on the ground by Tuesday evening.

The team only had their second training on Wednesday morning and had another scheduled for the evening of the same day.

Unfortunately, that third training session did not hold.

Reports indicate that the Super Falcons missed their Wednesday evening training because of a delay the team experienced at the South African embassy when they went to settle issues around their visa regarding travels for the return fixture.

Whether the delay at the South African embassy was deliberate or not, the Super Falcons cannot have more than four training sessions before matchday on Friday.

South Africa would have had at least eight here in Nigeria.

It does not look good, but it does not end there.

South Africa’s star striker, Thembi Kgatlana, has landed in Abuja for the crucial tie. She was one of their foreign-based players expected to join the rest of the team in Nigeria.

The 2018 CAF African Women’s Footballer of the Year will be the biggest attacking threat that Nigerian defender Osinachi Ohale has the arduous task of keeping quiet.

By contrast, the Super Falcons’ most accomplished forward, Asisat Oshoala, is not expected in Abuja until Thursday, barely 24 hours before matchday.

The record six-time Africa Best Player will likely not be included in Nigeria’s starting lineup, robbing coach Randy Waldrum of a key attacking component.

Registering a huge win in Abuja over South Africa is already a mission impossible.

With the contrasting dynamics surrounding the two teams’ preparations for Friday’s match, any manner of Super Falcons victory will be commendable, almost borderline genius.

Whatever happens, Nigeria must go to Pretoria for the second leg with a positive result because the less said of the return fixture, the better.

However, South Africa coach Desiree Ellis gave a hint of what the Super Falcons should expect when they play against the Banyana Banyana next week.

The 61-year-old tactician said:

“I think it is important we have a huge crowd. The crowd needs to come out.

“They [fans] need to show their support because we will need that 12th and 13th player. We don’t want the stadium filled with Nigerians with all due respect.

“We want the South African fans to really be the 12th and 13th players. That happened at the COSAFA Cup, and we have seen what that has done to the team.

“We urged fans to come out in their numbers. It is going to be really important.”

Interestingly, despite the machinations of the South Africans, Super Falcons coach Randy Waldrum has shown no signs of worries.

Rather, the 67-year-old American gaffer insists his team would overcome South Africa, the WAFCON champions, despite respecting them.

“We’re focused on getting to Paris,” Waldrum said.

“They understand the challenge that’s in front of them. It is time (to qualify for the Olympics after a long time).

“This team is generational, no disrespect to the other teams, the talent and the depth that is coming into the team, which we saw in Australia at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, against some of the best teams in the world.

“We can continue to move on and be a major player on the world stage. This team is special, and we can be one of the best teams in the world.

“South Africa have a very good side; they are defending African champions, and we have to respect them.

“They have a lot of individual talents in attack, where they are dangerous, and the coach has them very organised, but I have a lot of confidence in my players.”

The aggregate winners of the tie between Nigeria and South Africa will join Brazil, Japan, and world champions Spain in Group C in the eight-team tournament in Paris in July and August.

Only five African countries (Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia) have participated in the women’s Olympic football tournament since its inception in Atlanta in 1996.

Nigeria boast the most appearances (three), but the Super Falcons have not made it to the event since 2018, missing out on London 2012, Rio 2016, and Tokyo 2020.