Nigeria's AWCON loss against Banyana comes as no surprise

Nigeria captain Denise Oparanozie has called for the Super Falcons to receive equal pay. Pic Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix

Nigeria maybe have been to every FIFA Women's World Cup ever held, and South Africa may have been to none, but Banyana Banyana defeating the Super Falcons on Sunday came as little surprise to fans of either side.

Thembi Kgatlana of the Houston Dash struck a superb volley in their Africa Women Cup of Nations opener to see the South Africans past the team that has won 10 out of 12 editions of the tournament. It was Banyana's second-ever win over Nigeria since 1991.

But the result would not come as a shock to those who follow women's football. The Nigerians, defending AWCON champions, have been living in cruise control, assuming games in Africa were theirs for the taking. But just one friendly match in nearly two years was always going to come back to haunt them.

Banyana got just reward for their months of painstaking preparation for this tournament, playing more than a dozen matches in the past 18 months and winning the COSAFA Cup in September, by contrast. Additionally, Kgatlana was one of three US-based players for Banyana, while Franny Ordega was Nigeria's sole representative from the most competitive women's league in the world.

Once the undisputed dominant force in African women's football, Nigeria's stock has gradually fallen to the point were former 'minnows' can afford to shake their fists at them with impunity, and get away with it.

All of the flashing red lights were either ignored or dismissed as the team continued to ride the wave of glory set by their predecessors, to the point where finishing outside the top three at this AWCON, and thus missing next year's World Cup, is a real possibility.

Former glories can only extend so far, and even in those halcyon years, the signs were there. In 2002, Ghana inflicted a first-ever defeat on the Super Falcons, a team complete with the power of Mercy Akide, and the emerging Perpetua Nkwocha.

Then, as now, it took one goal - by Alberta Sackey - to decide the score as the Black Queens bunkered down and weathered a barrage of furious attacking from Nigeria, including a missed penalty by Akide.

Less than two years later, it took a heroic effort for the Falcons to overcome the Black Queens, on penalty kicks, to reach the 2004 Olympic Games.

And in 2008, the first major shock came. They were beaten to the African title (the first time they'd ever lost it) by Equatorial Guinea, finishing third. They regained the title in 2010, only to lose it again to Equatorial Guinea in 2012, this time finishing a below-par fourth.

But just before that, they had failed to qualify for the All Africa Games, the first time the team would fail to qualify for any tournament, especially in Africa. Then, Cameroon rubbed salt in the wound when they nicked ahead of the Nigerians to pick up a ticket to the 2012 Olympics.

And yet, panic did not set in. Where all hands should have rushed to the pump to identify the problem and find a long-lasting solution, the NFF took the path of least resistance, firing coach Eucharia Uche. It was her replacement, Kadiri Ikhana, who lost that 2012 African title.

Still all the alarm bells were ignored. Little or no attempt was made to improve the domestic league, or to identify and groom new players, or failing all that, to ensure that the senior women's national team gained valuable experience by competing against the best in the world.

For years the Falcons dominated Africa, only to fall short on the world stage time and time again, for the simple reason that the World Cup or Olympic Games were the only times they got to square off against quality opposition.

That trend has not changed. Next to the World Cup and Olympics, the Algarve Cup ranks as the most prestigious women's tournament in the world and features many of the best teams, but Africa's record champions have never participated.

It's worth mentioning though that recent editions of the Algarve tournament have not featured the USA nor a number of the top five-ranked sides, who have opted to play in the SheBelieves Cup. An African side has not competed there either.

The Cyprus Cup ranks close in prestige and quality to the Algarve, and the Super Falcons have never played there. South Africa, by contrast, have engaged in high profile friendlies over and again since 2016, and this year participated in Cyprus tournament.

It feels like Nigeria expected other African countries to stay trapped in some sort of time capsule where the Super Falcons would remain perennial front runners. But sitting in limbo for 2017, without a coach or playing a single game, was bound to take its toll.

The NFF did well by appointing a foreign coach, former Sweden boss Thomas Dennerby, and setting up a training camp for the women in Epe, despite being cash-strapped, but it was too late.

Even the best coach in the world would struggle to make anything meaningful out of a three-week training camp a month before a major tournament, especially if the core of his team only arrived after he had named his squad.

Losing against South Africa means they have essentially two Finals to play against Zambia and Equatorial Guinea. If they are to each the semifinals and stand a chance of qualifying for the World Cup, they can ill afford anything less than maximum points from both games.

If the Nigerians need a cast study of how to be, and remain, dominant, they only need look towards the United States to see how a team at the top of its game continually refreshes and reinvents itself to stay there.