How will Nigeria, Zambia fare at the Olympic Games in Paris?

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Nigeria and Zambia will represent Africa in the women's football competition at the 2024 Olympic Games after the engrossing conclusion of the qualifying campaign.

The final four teams in the qualifying campaign also represented Africa at the FIFA Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand last year, and contested the Women's Africa Cup of Nations in Morocco less than 18 months ago.

Will those campaigns, and the demoralising experience of losing the 2022 WAFCON semifinals, serve Nigeria and Zambia well as they look to break new ground for African sides in Olympic competition?

ESPN runs the rule over the African women's Olympic qualifiers, and looks ahead to the continent's chances in Paris.

How did they get there?

Twenty-five of the 54 Confederation of African Football member countries contested the qualifying campaign, which began with the draw in Cairo last May.

Zambia received a bye to the second round, and were then awarded a walkover against Mali, so they contested only two double-headers -- against Ghana and Morocco -- on the way to the Olympics.

Racheal Kundananji and Barbra Banda were the stars of the 4-3 aggregate triumph over the Black Queens in the third round, the former scoring the only goal of the first leg in Accra, Ghana, before Banda scored two -- including the 96th-minute equaliser to make it 3-3 on the night -- to see Zambia squeeze through during an unforgettable second leg at home in Ndola.

Rosella Ayane's 94th-minute winner gave Morocco a 2-1 first-leg victory in the fourth round, at the Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola on Friday, but Banda cancelled the Atlas Lionesses' advantage with her 39th-minute goal in the second leg in Morocco. So to extra time in Rabat, where a 105th-minute penalty from Banda -- who achieved superstardom for Zambia at the 2020 Olympics -- ensured the Copper Queens' progress.

In the other half of the draw, Nigeria also received a bye in the first round before dispatching Ethiopia 5-1 on aggregate after an unconvincing 1-1 draw in Addis Ababa. Skipper Rasheedat Ajibade was the star of the second leg, scoring two second-half goals in Abeokuta, Nigeria, as the Super Falcons cruised through.

Nigeria next faced Cameroon in February, in a rematch of the 2014 and 2016 Women's Africa Cup of Nations finals, with Esther Okoronkwo scoring the only goal across both legs to secure a 1-0 aggregate triumph. This set up a final showdown with another familiar nemesis, South Africa, and a rematch of the 2018 WAFCON final.

Ajibade's first-leg penalty against Banyana Banyana at the MKO Abiola Stadium in Nigeria ultimately proving the difference across 180 minutes.

Zambia and Nigeria both displayed endurance, resilience and character to negotiate two pairs of demanding qualifiers -- each settled by one-goal margins -- to take their place among the 12 qualifiers in Paris.

Qualification despite heartbreak

Zambia's qualification was secured against a backdrop of tragedy, after the death of striker Norin Betani on the eve of their third-round first leg against Ghana in February.

Betani, 24, felt unwell soon after reporting to the team camp, and was treated at the University Teaching Hospital in Zambia's capital, Lusaka, for malaria before succumbing to her illness.

Betani's teammates subsequently dedicated their progress in the qualification campaign to their fallen colleague.

Olympic pedigree

Neither Nigeria nor Zambia are strangers to Olympic competition, with the latter having qualified for consecutive campaigns after reaching the 2020 Games in Japan.

The Tokyo Games proved to be a chastening experience for Zambia, as the Copper Queens endured a chaotic tournament that included a 10-3 opening demolition by the Netherlands and a tumultuous 4-4 draw with China.

Banda, nevertheless, cemented her place as a genuine star, registering back-to-back hat tricks to become the only woman in Olympic history to score three times in two different matches at the Games.

Nigeria are Africa's most regular qualifiers for the women's tournament, the Super Falcons having reached the showpiece three times previously -- in 2000, 2004 and 2008-- but they have gone 16 years without an Olympic appearance.

What's been said?

Super Falcons coach Randy Waldrum, whose love-hate relationship with the Nigeria Football Federation took yet another twist with qualification, has urged the country's football authorities to ensure the team isn't let down by their preparation.

"My plea and my challenge is to the Ministry of Sports and to the federation to help prepare properly," Waldrum said after the Super Falcons secured their progress in Pretoria, South Africa. "We need to camp in Europe to prepare for the group that we have; we need proper training, proper transportation, to do things right because these women deserve this opportunity to represent our country Nigeria in the best possible way."

Certainly, getting the logistics right, and investing in off-the-field support, has been one of the key pillars of Zambia's rise to prominence within the women's game, and Zambian FA president Andrew Kamanga pledged, once again, after qualification that no expense would be spared to ensure the team arrived in Paris with the weight of federation support behind them.

"As always, we will stick to our well-established routine of organising quality preparations for our team ahead of the tournament," the FAZ president said in a statement, seen by ESPN.

"For now we will allow the team to suck in the moment before we get down to work again."

What to expect?

Despite the undisputed quality in the two camps, be under no illusion that Africa's qualifiers will be up against it in France.

With only 12 teams participating, there is an intense concentration of quality, and both Nigeria and Zambia are the rank outsiders in their groups.

The Super Falcons, ranked No. 36 in the world, will face three of the world's top 10 teams in the group, including Spain, the reigning world champions and No. 1 ranked team, in their second fixture. Nigeria must be particularly wary of La Roja, who demolished Zambia 5-0 en route to winning the World Cup.

Zambia don't have things much easier.

They are ranked No. 65 in the world -- the lowest-ranked team in the tournament -- and meet former gold medal winners the United States and Germany, both in the world's top five, as well as a potentially decisive meeting with No. 12-ranked Australia.

Still, both teams will likely be quietly confident they can defy their lowly rankings -- not least with Banda and Kundananji, the two most expensive women players on the planet, changing the global perception of the Zambian game.