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Monday, January 30, 2023

Nigeria: Power can come in small packages. Rita Nwadike is proof

The rapid growth of women’s football since the early 2000s has echoed across Africa, particularly in Nigeria. The Super Falcons have won a record 11 African Cup of Nations tournaments, while exports like Barcelona star Asisat Oshoala have put Nigerian women’s footballing talent on the world map. A force behind this success is Falcons star turned coach, Rita Nwadike.

When Rita Nwadike was growing up in the 1980s, the idea that women could become professional footballers was almost inconceivable. The nimble feet that ensured that she could take on the boys at street football in her home village were instead put to work to compete at track and field. Luckily for her, she stubbornly refused to give up her passion and switched back to football – a decision that was ultimately lucky not only for her and Nigerian football but also for the many women footballers she has trained over the past decade. A diminutive figure next to her teammates of the 1990s, she could easily have yielded to public opinion and given up her ambitions.

“After the 1991 National Sports Festival where I emerged the highest goal scorer, our coach Godwin Izilein asked the national team coach Paul Hamilton, ‘why can’t you invite this girl that has been scoring goals?’ When they invited me I was too small. Even the crowd in Lagos was telling Hamilton, ‘why did you bring this small girl, she cannot play, you have to send her back where she came from.’ But when I entered the field… they changed their minds towards me,” Nwadike said of her early experience as a national team player.

After a first World Cup outing in China, in 1991, the woman derided for her “skinny legs” went on to become the first Nigerian woman to score at two further World Cups – in Sweden in 1995 and the USA in 1999 – and her national team goal-scoring record was only broken in 2019, by her protege, Asisat Oshoala.

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As if leading the national team to a series of landmark achievements (gold at the All-Africa Games in 2003 and a quarter-finals place at the Athens Olympics in 2004) was not enough, Nwadike turned to coaching after retiring from competitive football in 2008 and did it all again, helping the Falcons to further success and developing new talent with the domestic team, Rivers Angels – her childhood side.

Today, testimonies from young players whose careers she launched, abound. In addition to Asisat Oshoala, other players include Chiamaka Nnadozie, Evelyn Nwabuoku, Vivian Ikechukwu, Maryann Ezenagu, Ugo Njoku, Brume Ikekhua and Precious Christopher – among others.

“Maryann Ezenagu, Damilola Koku, Vivian Ikechukwu… I trained them on how to score goals. I take them on personal training on how to score goals.

“Ikechukwu, Ezenagu and Oshoala are members of the Falcons and waxing strong in their clubs. Evelyn Nwabuoku, too is a midfielder and defender. As assistant to coach KadiriIkhana in the Falcons, we invited her as a midfielder but she played as a fullback. She did well.

“Asisat Oshoala is one of them. We trained her at Rivers Angels, where she started her international football career after a stint with FC Robo Queens as a defensive midfielder. We changed her into an attacker, where she has earned prominence. I remember when Coach Edwin Okon asked me to train her on how to score goals, I am the one that imparted the knowledge in her. I’m imparting the skills in other players,” the Rivers coach explained, during an interview with Bird at the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos.

Nwadike’s drive to build women players seems to know no bounds.

“Deep inside me, the hunger is still alive to keep producing quality players – goalkeepers, attackers and defenders. Look at Chiamaka Nnadozie… Today she is Falcons’ number one goalie and playing overseas. She is my product. I always bring up players to the limelight,” she said during an interview with bird, at her home.

Whether or not it was those early years playing street football Nwadike has never feared an opponent, despite her slight physical stature. That is something she instils in her players.

“In my days playing at the African Women Championship, I do not think I had any defender that truly scared me. Rather, the opposite is the case,” she said.

“I had the ball, I will outwit you. Defenders shake to their marrows each time they see me on the pitch, I remember a few tough ones but they still shake seeing me on the pitch. The likes of Ghana’s Alberta Sackey, Cameroun’s Anoug Bernadette and South Africa’s Desiree Ellis.”

Some of those former opponents are also now working to develop women’s football across the continent.

“Anoug is now an assistant coach in Cameroon while Ellis is the head coach of South Africa’s women team.”

Nwadike’s challenging attitude – the attitude that led to such success on the field – remains very much in evidence, today.

“Even the Moroccan, Egyptian, Guinean teams, the fear factor is the same. Each time I appeared on the pitch their players always catch a cold,” she said.

Nwadike is however quick to point out that it is not only attitude and talent that breeds greatness.

“I encourage and advise them. I tell them to excel in football you must work hard, be dedicated and be disciplined. I tell them during my time if I were not disciplined I would not be where I am today, I played for the Falcons, I played in Asia, in 2004 with Tianjin, together with my teammate and ex-Nigerian star, Stella Mbachu. Discipline is key to success.”

By: Humphrey Njoku | Bird | Nigeria.


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