2019 WWC Review: After all the African teams failed to make it past the Round of 16, What’s next for the game in Africa?
With the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup now in the books, it's time to reflect on what an amazing month of soccer it was, precisely for Africa. This year’s World Cup, saw two of Africa’s three representatives reaching the round of 16. Below we breakdown the happenings of the tournament with a focused attention on the African teams; Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa as well as the future of the sport on the continent moving forward.
AFRICA’S 2019 WORLD CUP EXPLOITS SUMMARISED
Nearly knocked out of the group stages as a result of a controversial VAR decision, the Nigerian Super Falcons had a decent world cup performance as they managed to reach the round of 16. While they were knocked out by two time champions, Germany, the West African team did meet their primary objective of at least qualifying for the knockout stages. Thus, the team will look to build on from this in preparation for future tournaments and ultimately the 2023 World Cup. What is more, coach Thomas Dennerby looks to have unearthed some young players who could be long term foundations of the squad.
Cameroon qualified for the round of 16 after beating New Zealand 2-1 in their final group match. A big letdown for the Cameroonians was their failure to be clinical in front of goal throughout the tournament. The Indomitable Lionesses were very creative and threatening going forward but a bit less cohesive defensively. In their last time out, Cameroon lost 3-0 to England in a match that was characterised by intense physicality and various controversial VAR decisions. One may not be faulted for believing that the less sportive behavior displayed by the Cameroon team during their match against England marred their never say die attitude which had helped them reach the round of 16. The players refused to restart the game after England had scored a goal awarded by a controversial VAR decision, causing a conundrum on the field of play in an unbearable sight for football fans.
To whom much is given much is expected, says an old adage. After a stellar showing at the 2018 Women’s AFCON tournament last year where they reached the finals, much was expected from the South African women’s team. The 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup was Banyana Banyana’s first ever appearance at that stage. The team lost all three matches though they did manage to salvage some pride by scoring a consolation goal courtesy of star player Thembi Kgatlana in their 3-1 loss against Spain. Nevertheless, perhaps some positives can be taken from Banyana’s world cup journey. Their ability to reach the tournament for the first time is something not to be taken lightly. Furthermore, the team has been able to blend in experience and youth that has come up the ranks, and as such, by the time the next world cup tournament arrives, a majority of the team’s youngsters would have reached their peak and will be ready to be more competitive.
THERE ARE OTHERS
While the above teams have exerted their place as the leading women’s football nations from the continent, there are other teams that are closely behind them that may rise in the near future. These include Mali, Zimbabwe and Zambia. The Mighty Warriors were the first Zimbabwean national football team to make it to a global event after qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. Previously, Zimbabwe had qualified for the Women's Africa Cup of Nations three times and their best performance was a fourth place finish at the 2000 edition held in Nigeria. Moreover, the upcoming COSAFA Cup will be an opportunity for the Mighty Warriors to redeem themselves and show their competence especially after failing to book a place at the Africa Women's Cup of Nations (AWCON) last year.
SOME CHALLENGES THAT NEED TO BE ADDRESSED IN THE WOMEN’S GAME
It must be pointed out that African national teams (both women and men) still have a long way to go if they are to succeed in major tournaments such as the Men and Women’s FIFA World Cup. Prominent even today, stories of pay disputes between players and the football governing body remain poisonous to the development of the sport and if left unaddressed, will continue to be a problem. Such disputes have reared their ugly heads as a result of the corruption and general mismanagement that plagues high-level football across Africa. Despite being home to large throngs of football lovers and also some of the world’s best players, football federations across the continent are engulfed by cancerous maladministration which creates a lot of problems that ultimately force players to take extreme measures in an effort to get their payments. Noteworthy examples that come to mind include the issues faced by the Nigerian women’s team after beating Cameroon 5-0 to win the AWCON back in 2004. The Nigerian federation refused to pay players their bonuses and pending allowances as the federation claimed there was no money. The players eventually got their dues after continued pressure from both players and the media. Fast forward to 2019, the same issue arose at the end of their world cup journey. It was reported that the Super Falcons refused to return home unless they were paid. Therefore, the absence of proper structures to deal with such problems will continue to result in unrest and lack of optimal performances from national team players.
A GLOBAL VIEW
In the same vein, another predominant issue not only in African women’s football but globally as well, has been the issue of unequal pay between the men’s and the women’s teams. It was reported that Banyana Banyana, South Africa women’s team, were paid 10 times less than Bafana Bafana, the men’s team. As such, this damning discovery resulted in the South African Football Association (SAFA) taking action to rectify this. To this end, in May 2019, SAFA increased Banyana's pay and made it equivalent to their male counterparts in a move that was welcomed by many South African football lovers. It was also reported that Nigeria too, has recently taken steps to correct the wage disparity between male and female players. The Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) told CNN it conducted a pay review in 2017 resulting in basic match bonuses for the Super Falcons being raised to $3,000 per player, while the basic bonus for the men's team was reduced from $10,000 to $5,000 per player. According to Samuel Ahmadu, a member of the women's committee for the NFF, the enormous pay gap in the African game can partly be attributed to poor handling of female football teams by their sports associations.
INFRASTRUCTURE & REASONS TO BE HOPEFUL
Despite the difficulties faced by many female players on the continent, there are signs of hope for the women's game. The Confederation of African Football (CAF), has been making bold steps towards investing in women's football. In 2018, the CAF President in a speech at the CAF women's football symposium alluded that the organization would prioritize women's competitions and support local federations in managing women's teams. Further to this, according to Yasmine Arkoub, co-founder of sports consulting firm, Melting Sports, there are also plans to launch an African Women's Champions League. Additionally, former Nigerian player Yusuf-Aromire has also launched the SheFootball Initiative to encourage young Nigerian girls to get on the pitch. The Super Falcons legend offers training for girls and provides football kits for those who can't afford them. "There are a million girls out there who want to play football but are not being encouraged. They just need the support and access to opportunities," she said.
Worth noting is that many African players have been travelling overseas in search for better opportunities to develop their football talents and advance their careers, yet the national teams have found themselves unable to shine on the global stage and many nations are still without a professional league. It is said that out of the 54 national associations in Africa, 25 countries currently have a women’s league with only four boasting well-organized and quality competitions, namely Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and South Africa. As a result, the insignificant number of leagues on the continent hinders many players’ abilities to compete at the highest level consistently, both at national and club level.
Considering all else, there is a long way to go for African football, and the following are some of the action points that I believe need to be addressed by relevant stakeholders in order to improve the sport. Firstly, football associations should make it a priority to source for more sustainable sponsorship for national women’s leagues. This will help in not only having enough prize money for the leagues, but it will also help in attracting local players to remain in the continent as a result of increased competitiveness in the domestic leagues, as well as increasing awareness and abolishing stigma surrounding women’s football which can ultimately draw more sponsors. Additionally, more partnerships between countries should be formed to fast-track the development of players. For instance, one notable initiative in this regard has been the partnership between SAFA and the Spanish La Liga which has seen the League commit to sponsoring the South African Under-17 women’s national team’s (Bantwana) trip to Spain to play two important friendly matches against select sides from La Liga’s national women’s league. SAFA’s representative remarked, “we have received balls to give to our provinces from La Liga, they have sent us La Liga qualified coaches to train our local coaches and have been heavily involved in initiatives with our regions and provinces to develop the sport at grassroots level.”
More of such partnerships are needed across the continent if women’s football in Africa is to rise to the level it belongs.