All-in on her pursuit of a sixth FIFA Women’s World Cup, Nigeria defender Onome Ebi leads a sleek-stepping Super Falcons team yearning to show a global audience this summer that it is time to rewrite perceptions of them.
“All the World Cups, people never believe in Nigeria; they think we’re just the team that will leave after the group stage,” responds captain Onome Ebi, when asked if opponents and outside voices should be wary of underestimating her team. “That’s what I think people feel about Nigeria, but I think this time around is going to be different.”
“I’m not just saying it because I want to say it, I’m saying it because it’s a fact. We have so many young players in the team, fast players, experienced players, talented players; they are ready to play and ready to fight and make a difference to Nigeria.
“The players are hungry to show to the world that Nigeria is a team to play against and be worried about.”
If any player’s view should carry extra gravitas, it is surely hers. Appearing in a first World Cup at 20 years old in 2003 (in the United States), the centre-back is potentially just three months away from making it to a sixth.
Nigeria’s 2023 adventure kicks off in Melbourne on 21st July against Olympic-tournament holders Canada, swiftly followed by co-hosts Australia and debutantes Republic of Ireland. While far from their first Shaku Shaku on the grandest of floors – the ninth, in fact – the perennial qualifiers come equipped this time with more players than ever from the world’s recognised leading leagues.
Even beyond UEFA Champions League-winning forward Asisat Oshoala (Barcelona), the Super Falcons squad spans the top divisions of England, France, Spain, Sweden and USA, among others. Such a scenario creates hope that the broadened understanding will then mesh successfully in national-team colours.
For Ebi, the difference is now perceptible.
“Asisat Oshoala, Desire Oparanozie, Francisca Ordega, Ashleigh (Plumptre), Toni Payne, we have so many playing abroad that are bringing that touch of professionalism to the national team, to make it look extraordinary. We feel it.
“The home-based players feel it a lot when they see the foreign players come back home to mix with them. It brings that joy, that feeling of something different from what we used to see.”
Excellent performance. What a way to round up our international break. Thank you all for your support 🙏.
We keep going strong 💪🙏🇳🇬🤗. pic.twitter.com/gUWesx7pAw
— ONOME EBI (@EBIONOME) April 11, 2023
France 2019 brought their first knockout-round qualification in the World Cup since 1999, and despite the calibre of opposition standing in the way, they back themselves to at least emulate that feat this year. Much less of a question, meanwhile, is the flavourful arrival they will bring to each of their host stadiums.
“Every game, we sing, we dance before the game – that’s just like our first warm-up!” laughs Ebi. “I think that is like our culture thing, a motivation to the team.”
“Even in our club side when I used to play in Nigeria, we used to do it. Every time before you go to the game, that singing motivates the team.
“Sometimes, everyone wants to put their earpiece on and listen to whatever kind of music they like, but we make it something compulsory to the team, because when you sing together, when you pray together, the spirit moves together. We made that our culture, something that must be done before every game.
“It’s gospel music that we sing, which brings the team spirit together before every game, so it’s something in us.”
In a squad swathed in vigour, the player warmly referred to as ‘mama of the team’ – though she prefers auntie – has no intention of easing up yet. This month’s international window saw the Super Falcons continue their upturn in form with a third successive win, as Ebi’s looping header helped secure a 3-0 victory over World Cup co-hosts New Zealand in Antalya, Turkey.
A player’s career seems to bring an automatically-altered lens as soon as their age flips from 29 to 30, with obligatory reminders of their ‘veteran’ status whenever their name is mentioned. In any case, there are some who manage to defy the supposed limitations of that label, including Nigeria’s number five.
“Honestly, I don’t know how I feel like this! I honestly don’t understand why I don’t feel the age thing.
“If you see me and the way I play, you would never believe I’m that age. I look at myself in the mirror sometimes and I say to myself, ‘What am I doing different that’s making me still be this fit?!’
“I don’t feel it, that’s the thing. When I’m home and I’m on break, I train with the guys, so the way I match with them, it’s unbelievable to me sometimes.
“I ask myself, ‘Is this you? Are you even aging at all?’ I know, yeah, there will be a time that I must quit this game, I must retire, but when I don’t feel it, when I feel so fresh, I feel like I want to train every day.
“I don’t see any reason (to stop), unless I make that decision myself. All my life playing, I’ve never been a reserve player, I’ve never been on the bench, and that should show people that ‘this lady is giving something, that’s why they’re using her.’
“If I start feeling, ‘Okay, it’s time to step down,’ I will make that decision myself, because I don’t want to get to a stage where young ones start messing me up on the pitch. I feel okay right now, so…we’ll see!”
The chance to face up against world-class attackers once again, namely the likes of Canada’s Christine Sinclair and Australia’s Sam Kerr, may be just around the corner. The art of being swift on the toes, though, is a prerequisite for the Nigeria team at any time.
Afrobeats sensation Davido’s ‘Unavailable’ (featuring Musa Keys) was one track lighting the fuse on this past camp, as celebrated on video by Michelle Alozie, Vivian Ikechukwu and Gift Monday. Although possessing ample moves of her own, Ebi believes the honour of flyest Super Falcon may have to go to one of their most renowned forwards.
“Francisca (Ordega) is like the craziest in the team. If Francisca is not in the team, something is missing, because she’s everywhere!
“Yeah, I would say she’s one of the best dancers in the team.”
If a team’s intensity should begin with its forward players, Nigeria like to reverse that trend – off the pitch, at least.
“Our goalkeeper Chiamaka (Nnadozie), she is our DJ! Without Chiamaka, it looks so boring; she’s the one with the speaker.
“We like cultural dance a lot. When it comes to Afrobeats, we like Davido, we like Wizkid, and Burna Boy; we do mix them but that’s like our three most popular.
“Davido is my best musician; anywhere I listen to his music, I know it’s Davido singing, so I just get motivated. Everything that makes Nigerians happy involves music.”
My dance step is something else 🤣🇳🇬❤🙈🤦♀️ pic.twitter.com/GCwjrWRYZ5
— ONOME EBI (@EBIONOME) August 8, 2020
The only African footballer (male or female) with five World Cups to her name, Ajegunle-raised Ebi has tasted continental success in the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) on four occasions. The multi-national odyssey that has been her club career has included league titles in Belarus (three with FC Minsk) and Turkey (two with Ataşehir Belediyespor).
On her footballing escapades around the globe, how often has she been placed under the singing spotlight in front of her peers, in the name of initiation?
“I never did that! In the national team, we do it; the new players sing, dance, or do something, but I didn’t do it, and I’ve never done it with a team.”
Should that voice ever get officially unleashed to the public, what better way than via a cover song with a teammate from her career? Luckily, she knows just the player to help bless the studio with some Naija shine.
“Francisca Ordega, she’s a fan of Wizkid, and she can sing to any music. So, I think if I want to sing with somebody, it should be Ordega.”
— ordega francisca (@OrdegaF) July 29, 2019
An extra dynamic has been added to the Super Falcons in the last couple of years with the arrival of American-raised players like sisters Toni and Nicole Payne, Ifeoma Onumonu, and the aforementioned Michelle Alozie. From England’s Women’s Super League, Leicester City’s Ashleigh Plumptre has also given herself to the cause, opting to proudly represent her paternal heritage.
Ebi’s assessment of her fellow defender’s integration into the set-up is a glowing one.
“Oh, Ashleigh is a fun girl to be around. I think the first day she saw me, she was excited.
“We were with the physiotherapist, so we were having a conversation, and she was looking at me and saying, ‘I really look up to you, I like the way you play, you encourage me, you motivate me.’ She’s really close to me.
“She’s so disciplined. She has this African mentality in her; she’s a player that never gives up, she always goes to the end.
“Even if it’s one second to go, Ashleigh will give everything, that’s why I like her so much. I think I’m really happy playing with a player like that.
“Even as a new player in the team, she has contributed a lot in a short period. I believe with her staying in the team for a long time, it will really help the team in different ways.”
Leading them into the World Cup is Randy Waldrum, the vastly-experienced Texan who was NWSL club Houston Dash’s inaugural head coach. Also managing the University of Pittsburgh women’s team at present, Waldrum is in his second role in international football, after a mid-2010s stint with Trinidad and Tobago.
Light was shone upon the T&T squad’s plight during the 2014 CONCACAF Women’s Championship when he appealed on Twitter for help with food and equipment for the players – this in a tournament in which they were attempting (and so very nearly managed) to qualify for the World Cup. Ebi speaks with appreciation for his work so far with Nigeria.
“Randy has been really trying, and it’s not easy. The national team is not like every other national team – we change our players almost all the time.
“I believe with time, things could get better, if they give whoever is in charge time to help the team grow. For me, he’s doing his best.”
Becoming a free agent earlier this season when departing top-division Liga F (Spain) side Levante Las Planas, Ebi also notes the concerted effort from Waldrum to make her feel a valued part of the team’s plans.
“I talk to him all the time. Even before I left Spain, I told him the situation there and I told him the reason why I would be leaving.
“He said to me, ‘If it’s good for you, if it would be better for you…’ For me, I don’t trade anything for my health, my mental health; whatever makes me happy, that’s what I go for.
“The situation in Spain was so much for me that it was tampering with my mental health, so I don’t care whatever is at stake, I just have to protect my health first before anything. I was in touch with him and he understood.
“I think in every national team, you have to help your players. We have been talking and he has been like a ‘father’ coach that’s there for his players.”
Ebi is among four active players aiming this summer to play in a sixth World Cup, alongside Canada’s Christine Sinclair, Marta, and fellow Brazil legend Cristiane, who still harbours hope of a recall. Alongside Ebi at four of those previous tournaments was Perpetua Nkwocha, former Super Falcons captain and four-time African Women’s Footballer of the Year.
The pair were briefly teammates at Sunnanå SK in Sweden, with Ebi having already represented Piteå IF and Djurgårdens IF. In between those stints was her time in Turkey (at Düvenciler Lisesispor and Ataşehir Belediyespor), which also brought her the grateful return of warmer weather.
After a deep intake of breath, she considers if there has been a happiest period in her club career to date.
“I think China (for Henan Jianye)! People think Chinese football is not competitive but I say that’s a lie.
“I really enjoy Chinese football, their professionalism is top notch, it’s 100 per cent. The way they treat professional players is so different from every country I’ve played.
“They treat you like you’re a professional player, in terms of accommodation, money-wise, playing, and one thing about Chinese teams, they don’t sign you if you’re not wanted.”
We are Africans 🇳🇬🇿🇦🇬🇭🇲🇼❤. Complete Squad ready for Chinese women’s league⚽️🇨🇳. pic.twitter.com/CNA4qzxpsQ
— ONOME EBI (@EBIONOME) April 17, 2019
While long since recognised as a defender, Ebi was once a striker, before being converted to a defender around the age of 19. The most recent of her two spells in Belarus with FC Minsk included a snapshot of that former life, with the first hat-trick of her career (in June 2021).
Having travelled far and wide in the past two decades, she is among those looking to bring the benefit of those experiences back home. Significant talent has always existed in African women’s football, with Nigeria claiming some standout examples through the years, but such talent always needs its platform to flourish.
Ebi had spoken in the past of her wish for a CAF Women’s Champions League, with its inaugural edition then beginning play in 2021. She is asked what she would like to see next for the women’s game in Nigeria, and Africa overall.
“I was really happy when I heard about the Champions League, because when you speak and it comes to pass, you feel like ‘yes, something is going well.’ I will talk about my country, because you have to take care of your home before you go outside.
“I had the opportunity to have my foundation when I was playing in China. I focused on helping our league to grow the best I can, supporting teams with equipment, because I think that’s one thing we lack in Africa, mostly in Nigeria.
“That’s something I will be so happy if we can get the opportunity to change, if we can have good facilities to play with, and that’s the problem we’re having right now. And sponsorship concerning the players’ salaries; we say money is not everything, but money is football.
“You want us to play good football for you – you have to pay them. You can’t expect players that have not eaten for a day to go play a game, it’s impossible.
“That’s another thing I’m looking at, if we can have good sponsors that can help the league, and provide equipment to help the teams play good football. Financial assistance is really, really important for the players.”
As she closes in on another World Cup, is there any faint thought yet of wanting to challenge Brazilian midfield titan Formiga’s record of seven?!
“That, I can say I don’t know! But by the grace of God, 100 per cent sure for the sixth, because I work really hard for it.
“I’m not just saying it, because I think I have the power to be there; I’m so disciplined and dedicated to be there. So, for the sixth, yes.
“We’ll take it one step at a time – let’s go for the sixth first and we’ll know what to do next!”
Away from time at the beach, shopping, or watching animated films, nothing brings her more happiness than the simple pleasure of sleep. Here is one scenario, however, in which to not get caught snoozing.
The regular final question on this site down the years has put the interviewee into a small-sided match-up – entirely hypothetical, for any coaches concerned about injuries – with four places in their team to be filled. Instead of the ‘best,’ the only rule is to select examples of current or former teammates who can guarantee pure enjoyment.
“Just for fun…okay. I will like to secure my goalpost first, so I will go with Chiamaka (Nnadozie).
“I think I will go with one of my Chinese teammates, from Henan; she was the captain of my team (Lou Jiahui, midfielder). Now I have two left…you’re putting me in a hot spot!
“(Francisca) Ordega should be there, in the attack, because the way she carries the ball, it’s funny and interesting, too! The last one should be…all my players are interesting, so it’s very hard.
“Rasheedat (Ajibade, forward); she’s skilful.”
Deep into stoppage time of the conversation, Ebi asks to share one final sentiment.
“One thing I want to say for the fans, Nigerian fans, and the fans worldwide: we should encourage our players and give them the full support, because the fans are like our motivation. They motivate us to go more, and we should try to appreciate that, that’s really important.
“We should not shove them under the carpet.”
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