Could any of the African teams shock the world?

The Total Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (AWCON) comes with great anticipation and the celebration of the continent’s women who have thrived in soccer. After we have given the medals and sang the national anthems on the day of the final match. We might all know that one of the objectives of the Total Africa Women’s Cup of Nations is not just to determine the champion, but to select the three teams that will represent the continent in the Women’s World Cup. In this 2019 edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup; Nigeria, South Africa and Cameroon will be there to show the world what Africa has to offer.

In our previous article, we gave an analysis of how each of these teams have been preparing for this grand challenge. The questions that are still lingering in most of our minds is; with all these preparations that are taking place, could the world just be pleasantly shocked by what Africa can bring to the table? Could this be the year that brings a fresh perspective on how the world views Africa? Before we get into what the teams might eventually come up with, it would be prudent to begin by analysing the starting place of each team which is how they performed at the 2018 AWCON, the current odds and what they might just shock with. Even beyond that, we want to explore the bigger conversation about the necessity and relevance of predicting how teams will perform at a tournament way before the matches begin.


Nigeria

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Since 1991, the Super Falcons have never missed any World Cup. They will be appearing in the Women’s World Cup for the 8th time. As expected, this has come after the team has won the AWCON Cup, a staggering 11 times out of 12. Even in 2018, the Super Falcons did not disappoint as they still snatched the title from South Africa by a 4-3 scoreline. Even though the fortunate and timely winning only came by a “lottery” penalty shoot-out, it still allowed the celebration to fall on the West African side. Some critics claim that Nigeria’s performance in the AWCON was not up to standard with some moments where it could even be doubted that they would win this year. Regardless of that view, others still believed that some Nigerian players still did well during the tournament with Asisat Ashoala scoring the second highest number of goals in the tournament and Tochukwu Oluehi getting the best goalkeeper award. These are the players that will still be in the World Cup squad in France. The different opinions then inform the predictions of how these ladies may perform on the upcoming tournaments.

Despite the multiple World Cup appearances, it looks like the Super Falcons’ dominance is only constricted within the African continent. The most devastating results came in China 1991 and 2013 in the United States where none of the team’s efforts resulted in a goal. They could not get even a single goal throughout the tournament.  The Super Falcons did finish in the top 8 in the 1999 World Cup which still remains their highlight today. With such an unimpressive track record, what are the odds that this year might be the year that the team wipes the tears of all Nigerians who have wept since 1991? That is a difficult question to respond to because it is really hard to pin down the challenges behind the Super Falcons’ disappointing performance at an international level. It might be the pressure that comes with knowing what is at stake, the strength of the other teams or just the inevitable losses that come with any sport. Some analysts attribute these losses to the fact that some of these players are not fit enough and the team has not worked on their playing system. Those arguments were valid before the current coach Thomas Dennerby joined the team and moved a couple of things around.

Recent predictions of who is most likely going to win the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup; USA, France and Germany were at the top of that list. After scrolling down and down the list, the Nigerian team finally appeared as the 20th most likely team to win the World Cup. This is, by the way, the most likely team amongst the three African teams that will be present. The probability score that was assigned to them was 250/1. In short, very few people, if any at all believe that the Super Falcons are likely going to win the World Cup. But that is exactly what will make it a shock, right? If a team with such a low prediction does not only rise to the top but carries the title home, the world could be pleasantly surprised.

Asisat Oshoala who is a star player of the Nigerian team and plays for Barcelona was quoted saying, “In football anything is possible. We are a team in progress and we will surely spring surprises during the World Cup.


South Africa

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After standing just one goal away from taking the AWCON cup home, Banyana Banyana will be attending the Women’s World Cup for the first time. As it can be assumed of a debut appearance, it has been predicted that South Africa is least likely going to win. Actually, out of the 24 teams that will be there, South Africa is considered as the 22nd most likely team, just above Jamaica and Thailand. What we cannot overlook though, is that after the AWCON, South Africa is armed with the Best Player in Africa and top goal scorer of that tournament, Thembi Kgatlana. Beyond that award, and of course, the silver medals, a couple of other South African players also got awards for scoring goals at the tournament. After carrying the team to the finals, we cannot dismiss the possibility of her doing the same at the World Cup this June.

I moved around asking for people’s opinions and one respondent said, “South Africa might not have the experience and many key players, but what they have is a united front. Just like Croatia, they might just shock the world.” In the 2018 FIFA World Cup, there were other renowned and presumably more deserving teams like Germany and Portugal, but Croatia silenced all skeptics and made it to the finals. History and fate might just collaborate to bring the same for South Africa. Even though South Africa have not often participated at the international level, they have proactively sought opportunities to get this kind of exposure before the tournament commences. In April, they had a match with Jamaica who will also be at the World Cup. Banyana have played other teams like the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States in an attempt to get experience. They will face Norway on the 2nd of June 2019 to get a final sense of their readiness. But really, to what extent does experience matter? Would South Africa’s lack of international experience work against them?

None of the teams that have won the World Cup since its inception in 1991 did so on their first attempt. The United States which has won the World Cup three times have been there since the beginning. There is a unique kind of value and lesson that can only come by being in the heat of the international pressure that comes with such a tournament. Sometimes, not even an international friendly game can give a taste of what it feels like, which is South Africa’s reality. Experience cannot really be substituted. We cannot fully anticipate what their performance will be like, but we are always behind our teams regardless of how low the odds could be.


Cameroon

After beating Mali 4-2 in the third-place play-off match last year, the Indomitable Lionesses of Cameroon secured their place in this year Women’s World Cup. Just like all the other African teams, the team is also anticipated to perform poorly at the upcoming tournament and has been given a probability score of 500/1 which is the same as South Africa. They appear as the 21st most likely to lift the trophy. Given that the Cameroonians will be appearing for the second time in the tournament, they have had some lessons to incorporate from the 2015 edition where they went as far the round 16.

Unlike Banyana Banyana, this team has not had enough opportunities to explore a lot of international opportunities during the preparation stage for the tournament. They have prepared mainly through domestic means which is a method that has been criticised for its inability to represent the reality of tournaments as big as the World Cup. Even though that might be true, we cannot escape that some countries do not have enough resources to prepare their teams to the desired levels. Cameroon has, however, participated in the Chinese Four-nation tournament where they came second to China. That is something impressive on its own. It might not be all the necessary exposure, but it did give the team an idea of what to expect. They expect to seal their preparations with a friendly match against Spain later this May. Their forward Njoya Ajara who has been making waves recently, says she is optimistic that they will do better this year. In spite of how optimistic teams can be, they still face a lot of negativity from the outside world. This then raises a question, that if all teams have qualified for a certain tournament, is it necessary to then predict how they will perform? In whose best interest are these predictions?


Are predictions necessary and helpful?

It has become a tradition that before any major tournament or game, sports pundits would dedicate time to predicting the outcome of that tournament. The Women’s World Cup has not been excluded from that tradition. The challenge with predictions is that they perpetuate pre-tournament stereotypes. Predictions label teams as winners and losers even before they are given a chance which could affect the team’s motivation. I cannot begin to imagine what must be in the Thailand training sessions after they have been declared as the least team that could possibly win this title. After a team has gone through the hustles of qualifying for the tournament, they are implicitly told they are not good enough. We cannot even be sure of the effect of such stereotypes on the objectivity of some decisions on the field of play. There are difficult moments like when a goal has to be validated or a foul has to be considered, knowing how a team is viewed can have an effect of the outcome of the decision.

However, it would also be blindly optimistic of us to assume that all teams in a certain tournament have an equal chance. Such a stance could be undermining the role of data. Predictions are based on teams’ previous performances, which cannot be ignored. They are not necessarily based on any ill intentions, but the aim is to raise awareness and excitement about the game. In fact, such predictions can be the reason why fans watch the games to see if they are being verified. After all, this article is also predicting a future which is a bit different from what the rest of the world is anticipating.


Conclusion

The three teams that will represent Africa are not there by coincidence or mistake. They were at the top of the AWCON because they worked hard, re-strategised quickly and learned fast even in the midst of the championship battle. There seems to be a bigger barrier when it comes to the World Cup which might be because of the way they are perceived by the rest of the world. It might also be because of real technicalities that they will need to work on to be on top of their game. Whatever the challenge might be, a bit of optimism here and there is always useful which is something that all the teams have in common. For Nigeria, this is when the experience they have gotten over the years might propel the Super Falcons to fly higher. To South Africa, nobody said small and new beginnings cannot explode to impressive success. Cameroon, the reason why you are at the World Cup again is that the first one was not enough to expose your greatness, here is another chance. Nobody knows, but could any of the African teams shock the world?