COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
Nigeria are far and away the most successful African nation in women’s football, and has a long list of players who have played to a very high level. It would not be a stretch, then, to say that Africa’s greatest ever female footballer is a Nigerian: that honour goes, without much of a doubt, to Perpetua Nkwocha.
Nigerian football has for the most part been defined by flair and speed, and so, in many ways, Nkwocha is the quintessential Nigerian footballer. However, in the realms of female football, she was remarkably unique in marrying both speed and flair, thereby defining and forging a new paradigm.
Her ability with the ball at her feet, and the ease with which she manipulated it, were a revelation. The Super Falcons’ era of the 90s had been built around the raw power of Mercy Akide upfront and the pace of the likes of Patience Avre and Stella Mbachu. Captain Florence Omagbemi injected calm and tenacity into the mix.
However, it was the arrival of Nkwocha that infused the national team with a characteristic razzle dazzle. Comparisons with the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha were unavoidable, if somewhat misguided: Nkwocha was a more business-minded player; but in terms of dribbling ability in tight spaces, they were not far off the mark.
In the colours of Nigeria, it is perhaps easier to detail what Nkwocha did not win.
She played in seven Africa Women’s Nations Cups between 2002 and 2014, winning on five of those occasions. She has also won the most international caps for the Super Falcons, with 99.
Per Fifa, she scored 80 international goals – a remarkable average of 0.8 goals a game. She also played in four World Cups and three Olympic Games tournaments.
Nkwocha holds the record for the most Africa Women’s Footballer of the Year awards, with four in total. In 2004, she won the tournament Golden Boot and was named Most Valuable Player as Nigeria claimed yet another continental title.
Her performances in South Africa earned her a place in that year’s Fifa World XI, and she remains the only African player to have been accorded the honour.
She may have begun her international career at the age of 23, but Nkwocha need very little time to adapt. By 28, she was the height of her powers, and showed it in that glorious AWCON in 2004.
The attacking midfielder scored in every game, but she however saved her best for the biggest occasion of all: the final against Cameroon. The Lionesses were an emergent force, and had announced their intent by twice coming from behind to draw 2-2 against the Super Falcons in the Group Stage.
Come the final, the atmosphere was tense at the possibility of a torch-passing moment. Nkwocha though had other ideas. She opened the scoring on the quarter of an hour, and by the time the hour was up, she had struck an incredible four times. Vera Okolo finished the scoring, dispelling all doubt as to Nigeria’s superiority, but there was no question whose final it was. It was the crowning glory of the most devastating footballer on the continent.
There is little that can be considered a letdown in Nkwocha’s career.
However, with historically great players, there is always the question of whether or not their ability was maximised within the collective.
For a player of her quality, there is a tinge of regret that the Super Falcons never went further on a global stage than they did. Much as she is without doubt the best ever on the continent, a run as memorable as the 1999 World Cup, in which Nigeria progressed from the group to the Quarter Final stage, would have been a fitting exclamation point in her career.
WHAT THEY SAID
I had always wanted to be a Reverend Sister [nun] or a Lawyer growing up, but my love for football was too much and I followed my passion.
- Perpetua Nkwocha, Complete Sports