Some pundits have christened the ongoing FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand as the ‘Age of the underdogs.’ They point at Jamaica, Philippines, Nigeria, South Africa, and Morocco as teams that have shown in the last two weeks that paper rankings don’t matter once the ball bounces on the field.

In every international championship, particularly football, certain teams are seen as favourites to get to, at least, the semifinals of the competition. It has been that way since FIFA created a World Cup for women, with Germany, Brazil, the United States, China, South Korea, Norway, Sweden, Australia, and Canada almost always at the dying ends of every edition.

African countries and some of the minnows of North and Central America, as well as Asia, are usually not reckoned with because they have proven, over time, that they are mostly in the competition to make up the numbers. Since Nigeria got to the quarterfinals in the USA 1999 edition, no member of the ‘less developed nations in football’ have gone past the second stage of the championship. But that is about to change.

In the just-concluded group matches, these lowly-rated nations showed that they are the emerging forces in women’s football by the manner they dispatched some of their more illustrious counterparts, with Germany’s failure to progress in a group that put forward Colombia and Morocco the biggest shock of them all.

Apart from Morocco, Africa also has Nigeria and South Africa in the round of 16, with at least one likely to qualify for the quarterfinals.

The 2023 FIFA World Cup, which is the first that will see three African nations qualify for the second round, has witnessed a lot of surprises. So, apart from Germany, some other top countries like Brazil, Canada, and Italy were unexpectedly knocked out of the tournament in the first round, while other teams performed way beyond expectations.

This World Cup is also the first that has seen three African Nations qualify for the Round of 16. The Super Falcons advanced from Group B by finishing second with five points. It is the first time that Nigeria did not lose a group-stage game.

Debutants, from Morocco, also qualified from their group, which had Colombia, Korea, and Germany. They finished second in Group H by defeating Colombia in their final game.

South Africa also qualified for the second round for the first time as they finished second in Group G. They were the least-ranked country in the group, but they held their own and finished with four points.

Even Zambia ended on a high as their dreams were already over when they played Costa Rica in their final game, but they go home with a first-ever World Cup win following a 3-1 success and a steely resolve to be back in four years.

In his congratulatory message to the three African countries, CAF President, Patrice Motsepe, noted that their performance is a signal of development in African football.

“CAF and the 54 African nations that are members of CAF congratulate the Women’s Teams of Nigeria, Morocco, and South Africa for their historic and well-deserved qualification to the Round of 16 of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia and New Zealand 2023,” Motsepe said.

“The Super Falcons, the Atlas Lionesses, and Banyana Banyana have made the people of Nigeria, Morocco, and South Africa, as well as the people of the rest of the African continent, very proud with their outstanding performances and hard-earned victories at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia and New Zealand 2023.

“The future of Women’s football on the African Continent is bright. The victories and successes of the Nigerian, Moroccan, and South African women’s teams will contribute significantly to the development and growth of women’s football in Africa.

“CAF wishes the Nigerian, Moroccan, and South African women’s football teams everything of the best for their upcoming matches.”

Nigeria finished runners-up in Group B following a 0-0 draw with the Republic of Ireland and take on England in the next stage. South Africa meet the Netherlands in their round of 16 game and Morocco tackle France.

Nigeria advanced unbeaten with a win and two draws, and enter the knockout rounds for the third time, and second in as many global finals. The Super Falcons reached the quarterfinals in 1999 when the competition had only 16 teams, and agonisingly lost on a golden goal to Brazil in a 4-3 thriller.

They got out of their group in the expanded 32-team tournament in 2019 but were well-beaten 3-0 by Germany. Can they go one better this time around? England presents a huge challenge.

Africa’s round of 16 matches has special flavours that are both historical and political. They will tackle the teams from their respective colonial masters.

Tomorrow, South Africa will face The Netherlands. The Netherlands occupied Cape Town and established a colony in South Africa before the British later took over.

Tomorrow’s game between the Super Falcons and Lionesses will be the fourth time both countries’ women’s teams will clash. They had met at the group stage of the 1995 edition in Karlstad, Sweden. England won the hard-fought game, 3-2. But in subsequent two matches in England, Nigeria won both.

First, in a July 2002 friendly match, a Patience Avre goal gave Nigeria a 1-0 win in Norwich. When they met again in England at Reading, the Super Falcons had a more comprehensive win, 3-0.

On Tuesday, Morocco, with a French coach, takes on France, the European nation that once colonised them. It is their first-ever confrontation.

Apart from the show of strength by Africa in Australia and New Zealand, some players have chosen the platform to show that they are as good as the best available anywhere in the world.

Super Falcons’ goalkeeper, Chiamaka Nnadozie, has been one of the shining stars with two Player of the Match awards in Nigeria’s three games to date and will be busy again tomorrow. But no player in the entire tournament averaged more than Christy Ucheibe’s six tackles per game, a massive nod to the hard work she puts into games.

The clever pundits, who analyse things such as possession, pass percentages, defensive and offensive key indicators, etc, have Nigeria currently ranked as the 15th-best team in the tournament so far. Slightly ahead of South Africa (18) and Morocco (22).

For the record, The Netherlands is top, followed by Japan, England, and France, which shows the enormity of the challenge facing the African teams in the next round.

South Africa claimed an epic 3-2 win over Italy to book a historic first place in the round of 16, coming through a tough pool that also included Sweden and Argentina. They competed superbly in all three games.

Thembi Kgatlana has unsurprisingly been the star with two goals and two assists so far, putting her among the leading players in the competition. But credit must go to Hildah Magaia. With two goals and an assist herself, she is not far behind.

Linda Motlhalo has for many had a quiet tournament, but her pass completion of 80 per cent is the best in the team and she keeps things ticking over in the midfield. A word too for defenders Bongeka Gamede and Lebohang Ramalepe, who have averaged 4.3 tackles per game, putting them high on the list across the tournament.

Morocco has been a changed side since their opening 0-6 opening loss to Germany. The North Africans subsequently beat South Korea 1-0 and Colombia by the same margin to emerge in the round of 16.

With Anissa Lahmari, who also got the goal that beat Colombia, pulling the strings, Morocco fancies their chances of continuing in the competition beyond tomorrow.

Lahmari has been a willing runner and won almost three times as many aerial duels in the team as any other player, willing to put her body, and head, on the line.

The French-born midfielder is a product of the Paris St Germain Youth Academy but currently plays for Guingamp.

Zambia bowed out but with their heads held high following their win over Costa Rica as Barbra Banda got the World Cup goal she so desperately craved.

They saved the best for last after a couple of 5-0 defeats but will have learned plenty and with a relatively young squad, have a lot to build on.

Nigeria’s Coach, Randy Waldrum, sees Africa’s progression in the competition as a sign that given the right funding, the continent would produce teams to rival the world’s best.

Speaking on his team’s success so far in the competition, Waldrum told abc.net.au that it is a sign of the self-belief that has permeated the whole squad.

“To think we’ve come here and got two results out of two top teams in the world says a lot not about our ability, but also our heart and competitive desire that the team has.

“I told them after the match: keep believing in yourself. Because great things can happen for teams when you fight for each other. It’s not always the best talent that wins, sometimes it’s the best team,” he said.

Waldrum said, “The gap is bridging, and the poorer countries are getting better as well,” Jamaican

“Obviously, for us, we’re a third-world country and we have to do quite a lot, too: we’ve missed so many FIFA windows, we’ve missed all sorts.

“It just takes a lot for the experienced players to drag everyone through and just give the belief, and I think that’s what it was today. It was about belief.”

When asked about the lack of funding and support for his team coming into the tournament, Waldrum once again used the podium of his success to bring these issues that his and many other teams are facing into the public domain, reminding us all that these teams have always been able to compete with the best — so long as they’re allowed to do so.

“There’s a lot of countries — not only in Africa but also in CONCACAF and other parts of the world — that need more funding. The work is not done. It’s getting better, but the work is not done. I just think the sky’s the limit.”



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