Nigeria return to Olympics at last, breaking Banyana hearts in the process

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Nigeria's Super Falcons will return to the Olympic Games for the first time since 2008 after besting South Africa 1-0 on aggregate over two legs, denying the current African champions a spot at the 2024 Olympic Women's Football Tournament.

Captain Rasheedat Ajibade despatched a penalty in the first leg last Friday to give the Super Falcons a well-deserved win in the home leg, albeit in front of a scant crowd, as Nigeria's capital Abuja is wont to provide.

Despite the very opposite in Pretoria on Tuesday, where the stadium was jammed with home fans, the Super Falcons stayed resolute, nullified Banyana Banyana, and sealed their place at the Games with another shutout.

"I am just extremely excited," Nigeria coach Randy Waldrum said afterwards. "I know how much it means to the fans of Nigeria, to the NFF, to all the people of Nigeria not to have qualified for 16 years, so I am very thankful and I just appreciate the support."

For coach Des Ellis and Banyana Banyana, it was heartbreak at home: "We didn't go forward as much as we wanted to in the first half, made a couple of changes in the second half and threw the kitchen sink at them. Unfortunately, the goal didn't go in and for that we are very disappointed.

"We knew that coming into this game, we needed to score. We also knew that we needed to score as early as possible because the longer the game went on, the more desperate we become.

"But we didn't start well, we changed the formation slightly and went for three upfront. They were very resolute tonight and we just couldn't get that one goal."

The benefits of having a permanent coach

A common thread runs through Nigeria's failures to qualify in 2012, 2016 and 2020. On each of those occasions, the team was between coaches, and were managed by interim coaches for the qualifiers.

In 2012, former international Uche Eucharia was in charge of the team as they fell to Cameroon via penalty shootout in the final round of qualifying. Uche was on the job but did not have a contract with the NFF and was working on a match by match basis.

The next two Olympic qualifiers were prosecuted by Christopher Danjuma, both on an interim basis. In 2015, he was asked to step into the role following the sacking of Edwin Okon after a poor World Cup. Danjuma was again called upon to step in on an interim basis in 2019, and this time, they were eliminated by Côte d'Ivoire.

The same scenario almost played out again for a fourth straight series, with the NFF foot-dragging for months before offering Randy Waldrum a contract extension. It is perhaps instructive that just like on the three previous occasions when they qualified for the Games, they did so with stability on the coaching front.

Waldrum claims first win over Ellis

Tuesday's result, and Friday's win before that, means Randy Waldrum can breathe a sigh of relief after claiming some measure of payback over Desiree Ellis.

Since getting the Nigeria job, Waldrum has faced Ellis twice and lost both times. The first meeting was at the Aisha Buhari Cup in 2021, as Banyana Banyana embarrassed The Super Falcons 4-2 in their own backyard. The second meeting was at the 2022 WAFCON in Morocco, where Banyana ran out 2-1 winners on their way to winning their first ever African title.

Claiming that first leg win would have helped get the pressure off of Waldrum's back, and inspired confidence going into the second leg.

But there was additional foundation for that confidence. Banyana Banyana and the Super Falcons share perhaps the longest rivalry in women's football on the African continent. Although the Super Falcons hold the edge in head to head, Banyana have gone some way towards closing that gap in recent years.

Over the last nine games going back to the 2012, the South Africans have come away with four wins to Nigeria's three, with two draws. However, Banyana Banyana have never beaten the Super Falcons in Olympic qualifying.

They lost 6-0 on aggregate in 2008 and 3-2 on aggregate in 2004. Additionally, they had never previously beaten the Super Falcons in South Africa. After Tuesday's draw, both those records remained intact.

Nigeria's defence (im)proves to be key

At the World Cup in Australia, Waldrum's team earned praise for their solid defense. Despite playing against three of the world's best teams, they kept three clean sheets in their four games and were only eliminated on penalties against England.

It is a form they have carried over into these qualifiers. Although they conceded against Ethiopia and Cape Verde each in the previous round, their two clean sheets against South Africa over two legs took them to 10 clean sheets from 13 games going all the way back to April of 2023. In that time, only Australia managed to score more than once against them.

For a team that seemed to have defensive waywardness baked into them, this has been quite the improvement. In tidying up at the back though, they have lost some of the offensive potency they displayed in the past. Waldrum was quick to acknowledge that

"I think this is our seventh or eighth clean sheet in nine games," he said. "Australia is the only team that scored twice on us. So, we've been very good defensively. I always felt strong about that. And with some proper work, we'll even get better with things on the offensive side which I know everyone has been asking for."