Olympic qualifiers: Nigeria, Cameroon on the brink of elimination

1667557_full-lnd (Photo Credit: FIFA.com)

 

That does not dispute the fact that they are currently the best two football teams on the continent – even the latest FIFA ranking makes it absolutely clear – but that is no automatic ticket to the Women’s Football Tournament of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Ranked 29th and 43rd in the world, Nigeria and Cameroon have all to do in their third round, second leg fixtures against Equatorial Guinea and Ghana respectively, if they are to make progress in their quest for another Olympics.

This weekend, the last four contenders to battle for Africa’s two slots will emerge, and apart from Zimbabwe forfeiting their game, hence giving Cote d’Ivoire an easy passage to the final round of the qualifiers, this penultimate round has proven to be really tight. The first leg results of the three matches that were decided two weeks ago are testament to this fact.

South Africa 1-0 Kenya

Cameroon 1-1 Ghana

Nigeria 1-1 Equatorial Guinea

The results above further portray the competitiveness in African women football and also show that no one is safe yet- not even Nigeria and Cameroon. However, it would be a huge upset if the SASOL-sponsored Banyana Banyana of South Africa fail to advance. That is not to undermine their opponents, Kenya who are ranked 139th in the world (21st in Africa) and are the only non-top ten African team still in the race. But South Africa are practically the best team when it comes to preparation in Africa, it’s just unfortunate they continue to under achieve.

In any case, it’s time to expect the unexpected; penalties might even be needed at the end of the day, especially in the clash of the top four – Equatorial Guinea/Nigeria, Ghana/ Cameroon.

Nigeria, the reigning African Champions, and Cameroon, the best African team at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup are favourites to progress, but they could be in for a shocker and here are three reasons.

 

Hungry oppositions

While Nigeria have always remained a constant when talking about Women Football in Africa and Cameroon have shown consistency in their rise to the top, Ghana and Equatorial Guinea are striving to get back to prominence and would see this as an opportunity in their mission to recover their lost glory.

The Black Queens of Ghana and the Nzalang Nacional of Equatorial Guinea ranked 52nd and 55th respectively (3rd and 4th on the continent) are amongst the few African names known on the global stage having been to the World Cup, but they have never qualified for the Olympics which is an extra motivation for them.

Ghana were runners-up (to Nigeria) on three occasions at the Africa Women Championship (1998, 2002, 2006) and that gave them their three appearances at the World Cup. However since 2007 they have been missing from the global scene and are looking forward to a relaunch. At this point, it’s worthy of note that the only time Ghana did not participate at the AWC, it was Cameroon that did the damage  in the qualifiers via penalties. But in the many meetings between the familiar foes, Ghana have had the upper hand most of the time. Prior to the first leg draw, their last meeting was at the 2014 AWC where Ghana beat Ngachu’s Lionesses 1-0 in their last group game.

The only time Ghana got close to qualifying, they were beaten 5-1 by Brazil in an intercontinental play-off in 2008.

Two-time African Champions, Equatorial Guinea – the only country apart from Nigeria to have won the AWC – appeared in the 2011 World Cup after finishing as Runners-up in the 2010 edition of the AWC.

They probably would have qualified for the 2012 Olympics but were disqualified in the second round for fielding an ineligible player against Cameroon despite beating their opponents 2-0 on aggregate. FIFA had suspended Equatorial Guinea striker Jade Boho Sayo for two months over apparent nationality issues.

That suspended Boho is the one that has scored the most goals so far (5), in this qualifying campaign.

That Little edge

In Africa especially, not conceding a goal at home is often key to a team’s victory in a two-legged tie. But that is what Nigeria and Cameroon failed to do in Abuja and Yaoundé two weeks ago. While the Super Falcons could not protect their 1-0 lead, the Indomitable Lionesses had to come from a goal down to draw 1-1.

This is not to say they cannot score away from home, but one would never know if the opponents approach to the game would let them.

Absence of Big names

With Nigeria missing the likes of Asisat Oshoala, Francisca Ordega, Josephine Chukwunonye, Onome Ebi and Halimatu Ayinde (goal scorer in the first leg) – that’s five first-team players already out – why won’t Equatorial Guinea with Jade Boho, Chinasa Okoro and Captain Genoviva Anonma relish the opportunity to cause the African Champions heart break.

After the first leg draw, even Coach Christopher Danjuma admitted they missed the services of some of his best legs, particularly Oshoala and Ebi but this time even more key players are out.

For the Indomitable Lionesses of Cameroon, without Gaelle Enganamouit and Gabrielle Aboudi Onguene – two players that made rave at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup – the team do not seem as fearless and Ghana are just waiting to pounce.

 

So in the end, it’s one, none or both (of Nigeria and Cameroon) that will be in the last four of the Olympic qualifiers.

World Cup experience? Yeah, they went to the World Cup and their opponents didn’t, so they definitely have prestige to protect as they’ve got better exposure playing with higher-ranked non-African teams across the globe at the tournament. Therefore, it sure would be disappointing if they do not advance to the next round of the Olympic qualifiers.

But again, let’s not forget that they are not dependent on their World Cup squads, and that’s what makes the difference. For Nigeria particularly, they have a depleted attack for the battle in Bata compared to what they paraded in Canada. They will have to rely on a slightly new forward combination with Desire Oparanozie as the talisman and midfield maestro Ngozi Okobi still in the mix.

One thing that would motivate Nigeria is the need to avoid a repeat of their failure to qualify for the same tournament four years ago. Cameroon were the giant killers at the time and they qualified alongside South Africa. For Cameroon, if they did it before, they can do it again.

Now, the question is, who makes it through and who goes back to the drawing board?

Here are the fixtures:

Ghana W vs Cameroon W – Sat. Aug 1
Kenya W vs South Africa W – Sun. Aug 2
E Guinea W vs Nigeria W – Sun. Aug 2

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