Failed CAF Women's Champions League run a new low for Nigeria

Nigeria's Rivers Angels only arrived in Egypt for the CAF Women's Champions League on the eve of the tournament, after numerous travel delays. They lost their opener the next day. Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

CAF's first ever Women's Champions League proved to be a runaway success, but not for Nigeria, whose failed campaign highlighted the lack of direction in the country's domestic league.

South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns made history when they emerged easy winners of CAF's inaugural continental club competition for women, going all five games without conceding a goal and beating Ghana's Hasaacas Ladies 2-0 in the final.

Their victory offered further proof of the growing ascendancy of South African women's football and the regression of former powerhouse Nigeria, whose Rivers Angels crashed out in the first round after two losses, including one to the eventual champions.

The serial Nigerian champions were conspicuously missing from the podium, or any of the individual awards handed out at the end of the tournament.

Going into the tournament, the Angels were touted as one of the tournament favourites, despite their hard fought loss to Hasaacas in the WAFU B Final.

Head coach Edwin Okon was very confident going in, saying: "I think the club is a very big team. Going to Egypt, it is a big championship, and we look forward to bringing home the trophy.

"Our target is the title as we've prepared well for the tournament. My calculation and focus are on winning the trophy. I have made the players understand the burden of the challenge on us."

Okon had good reason to be bullish. Nigeria is the only country in Africa to boast the singular record of having organised a domestic women's league consistently every year since 1991.

The country has also produced some of the best players on the continent, including Mercy Akide, who in 1999 was named Africa's first-ever Women's Player of the Year. Akide charted the way for players from the continent to play abroad when she went to the USA to play College football, and then professional football with the San Diego Spirit of the WUSA, at the time the only professional women's league in the world.

The country has also won a record 11 African women titles and have been to every World Cup since the inaugural edition in 1991.

Rivers Angels are also Nigerian league royalty, having claimed the title six times and won a record eight Cup titles.

But the Nigeria champions never really took off in Cairo. They suffered a shock 3-0 upset to AS FAR in their opening game of the tournament, a result that was probably the consequence of the team only arriving in Egypt on the eve of the game following travel delays.

A more subdued Okon pointed to fatigue in a post-match interview: "The team is tired from all the traveling issues and that's the normal result."

That opening day loss was followed by a controversial 1-0 defeat to Sundowns, a setback that had Okon fuming. The decisive goal was allowed to stand after the ball hit the post and rolled on the line.

Okon was convinced the ball did not cross the line, saying: "We created many chances but did not score. But the goal we conceded is what makes me unhappy."

In truth, his team did not create many of their own chances at all. That much was pointed out by Aisha Falode, head of the Nigeria Women's Football League.

Falode said to ESPN: "My question then is, if a goal was scored that was not a goal, did they score any that were cancelled?"

Falode alleged that the league body had offered to assist Rivers Angels with their preparations ahead of the competition, but were rebuffed.

"As a league body, we wanted to them to do well," she said. "But for some reason, all our interventions that we wanted to make for them, we were told they had everything under control.

"Of course Rivers State are very strong in sports and have a football culture with knowledgeable people helping them out.

"When they went to Cote d'Ivoire and did not return as champions, that got us worried and we offered to help again by raising the best teams in the NWFL to help them prepare, but again we were told that they had everything under control."

'Under control' ... not so much. The team ran into visa and travel hitches and did not arrive in Egypt until the eve of their first game. All of that lack of preparation was bound to hurt, and it did.

"The first time they saw the stadium and played on the pitch was during the game," Falode said. "And they were taught a big lesson. Fatigue had set in because of the travel arrangements.

"It was a big disappointment."

Blaming travel and logistics issues is an easy cop out for Rivers Angels. In reality, their failure was symptomatic of the gradual and increasingly pronounced regression of women's football in Nigeria.

Since 1991, when official women's football games were first played in Africa, the Super Falcons did not lose a single game to continental opposition until 2002, when they were beaten 1-0 in a African Women's Championship group stage game by an Alberta Sackey-inspired Ghana Black Queens, the second best team on the continent at the time.

Such was the shock and anger over the defeat that the team rallied and crushed the Black Queens two games later in the Final, totally outplaying their neighbours and coming away with a convincing 2-0 win.

But in recent years, the team has lost the air of invincibility. They lost the African title twice to Equatorial Guinea. Worse, the Super Falcons have been eliminated from the past three Olympic tournaments, something that would have been unthinkable in the past.

At the 2018 AWCON, the Super Falcons were beaten in the opening game by Banyana Banyana, taken to penalties by Cameroon in the semifinal, and again by Banyana Banyana in the Final.

But they really hit rock bottom at the Aisha Buhari Cup earlier this year, when they laboured to beat Mali 2-0, before getting totally destroyed by South Africa in a 3-0 defeat.

With Rivers Angels' failure and the Super Falcons' recent bad performances, Falode said it was a clear indication that Nigeria women's football needs a reboot.

"What the Champions League showed us is that football on the continent has grown because countries are beginning to pay attention, invest in the game, and develop strategies," she said.

"We really need to do much more than we have done, now that we have seen what is going on.

"Other countries have not just caught up, they are now overtaking us.

"We have been living on past glory that the players will rise to the occasion. But football is not about that any more. It is about planning, about investment. COSAFA [southern African football], for instance, have been planning for a long time for the results they are getting now.

"WAFU runs no zonal competitions as a body. The countries have no template. The signs were there all the way back to the AWCON in Cameroon [in 2018]. It took luck for us to win that game against Cameroon. Luck and experience, There is only so much you can depend on luck and experience in modern day football."

Still, Stella Mbachu, who won three African titles with the Super Falcons and also played for Rivers Angels, insisted that despite the hiccup, Nigerian women's football was still strong and would bounce back.

"I believe we would correct our mistakes," she told ESPN. "I just hope every club in Nigeria have opened their eyes and they all know what happened.

"I believe the Rivers Angels themselves have identified what went wrong and will work on it. We're going to bounce back stronger. Look forward to the second edition and you will see the amazing and talented squad Rivers Angels will field.

"If you watch the final and semi finals, there's nothing spectacular they [Sundowns] did and our team played better in their last game."

But to get to that point where Nigeria women's football pulls ahead of the opposition, Falode says there has to be long term planning: "We really must sit down to address these issues.

"Investment in women's football should be priority for Nigeria now. Investment in facilities, personnel, development, training and competition. Otherwise, we will wake up and find ourselves left behind."