As Germany headed for a historic early exit and the Moroccan team huddled around a phone awaiting their Women’s World Cup fate, a tantalizing scenario began to emerge.
Nigeria came first, as their second-place finish in Group B determined a dance with England in the round of 16. Then it was South Africa, whose stoppage-time goal against Italy set up a match against the Netherlands.
And when the Germans crashed out of the tournament after failing to top Morocco’s result against Colombia against South Korea, it not only secured the north African nation’s spot in the knockout stage — it also confirmed their meeting with France.
If the section of Black Twitter that’s been following the World Cup had been watching this unfold together at a bar, no doubt there would have been a collective pause: each of the African nations that qualified for the round of 16 would face off against a team whose nation had once colonized theirs.
“Not THREE colonial derbies in the #FIFAWomensWorldCup round of 16,” said Franklin Leonard, along with a gif of James Baldwin edited to show his right eye twitching.
“The World Cup giving us derby de colonialism,” wrote Tosin Makinde. “Well done script writers.”
The Shea Butter FC podcast was even more explicit, calling the three-way clashes the “FIFA Reparations Cup”.
Many people saw it as an opportunity to flip the tables of history. The Treaty of Fez in 1912, signed between France and Moroccan Sultan Abdul Hafiz, established the north African nation as a French protectorate and paved the way for more than four decades of colonial rule. Morocco gained independence in 1956, four years after the Casablanca uprisings of 1952, and a year after Sultan Mohammed V declared independence. The Dutch East India Company imposed itself in 1652 on what is now known as Cape Town, establishing a colony that would grant land to Dutch settlers five years later (the Dutch transferred that land to the British Empire in 1806, and South Africa eventually declared sovereignty from the British in 1931). The British occupied Nigeria from the mid-19th century and established its first protectorate in Lagos in 1861. Nigeria gained independence just over a century later, in 1960.
On the field in Australia and New Zealand, the fact that Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco made history as the three African nations to advance beyond the preliminary games of the World Cup for the first time illustrates how competitive the level of talent is on the continent.
Morocco, whose federation has executed with pinpoint precision its plan to elevate the game for women and men, has shown what investment can do. Nigeria and South Africa have set aside their ongoing battles with their federations to drive home the bittersweet truth that they can achieve greatness in spite of them.
Away from the big-ticket network deals and glossy editorial treatments enjoyed by football clubs and players in the west, women’s football in Africa has been rising, steadily and without much fanfare, demanding attention by wreaking havoc on pre-tournament predictions that dared erase or underestimate them.
Before their match against Australia, the Copper Queens of Zambia sent the Nigerian players a video wishing them luck.
Ashleigh Plumptre, a British-Nigerian dual national who plays as a defender for the Super Falcons, said her teammate, goalkeeper Tochukwu “Tochi” Oluehi, “knew some of the Zambian girls and sent her the video, then she put it on our group chat.” Michelle Alozie, who anchors the other side of Nigeria’s back line, posted “3 African nations!” on social media minutes after Morocco advanced.
Zambia were the fourth African nation at this expanded 32-team World Cup. Their very participation on this stage was a triumph, but their story ended up being less about what happened on the pitch (elimination at the group stage) and more to do with allegations made against their coach, Bruce Mwape. He has been accused of coercion, claims he denies, and an investigation into his conduct is reportedly under way.
Zambia’s heroes and a ‘sorrowful’ tale of coercion allegations, vulnerability and pain
They, like the other three African sides at this tournament, were not widely expected to make it out of their group. South Africa won last year’s Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON), beating Morocco 2-1 in the final in front of more than 50,000 fans, in theory making them the continent’s biggest hope. But hosts Morocco displayed such convincing skill that South Africa’s star striker Thembi Kgatlana is convinced they are on track to become the top squad on the continent.
In 2020, the Royal Moroccan Football Federation announced the establishment of two professional women’s leagues, part of a broader four-year plan to boost the status and potential of women’s football across the country.
They made a similar splash at club level. Nine of the players on Morocco’s World Cup roster play for the Association’s Sports of Forces Armed Royal team, or AS FAR, which made its inaugural appearance at the Confederation of African Football’s Women’s Champions League in 2021, placing third. The following year, they won the whole tournament.
African teams’ last-16 fixtures and results
Sunday, August 6
Netherlands 2-0 South Africa
Monday, August 7
England vs Nigeria — Brisbane Stadium (8.30am)
Tuesday, August 8
France vs Morocco — Hindmarsh Stadium (12pm BST)
“I’m telling you… Morocco is going to be a powerhouse whether we like it or not, because they are in the right direction of making sure they empower the women’s game in their country,” Kgatlana said in an interview with ESPN in March.
Kgatlana’s national team coach Desiree Ellis was similarly effusive ahead of South Africa’s match against the Netherlands.
“You look at Morocco, right? You’ve got two professional [women’s] leagues going. I don’t think many places in the world have that,” said Ellis, herself a player before taking the reins in 2018. “But it shows how the game is changing. It shows how the game is evolving. It shows how the different continents are putting in the work to make sure their teams really do well — but then it’s up to the team itself to put in that work.”
South Africa lacked the same degree of support from their federation on their World Cup pilgrimage.
Their level of participation in the tournament was unclear until the start of the competition. A dispute with the South Africa Football Association over their contracts flared, and the team refused to take the field against Botswana in a pre-World Cup friendly on July 9.
Nigeria, Jamaica and South Africa’s success owes nothing to those who failed them
Players alleged the $30,000 (£23,500) bonus promised to each player by FIFA had been excluded from their contracts, and criticized the Johannesburg venue selected for their send-off game. A hefty $320,000 donation from the Motsepe Foundation (founded by South African businessman and Confederation of African Football president Patrice Motsepe and his partner Precious Moloi-Motsepe) provided enough relief to the continental champions that by the eve of their Women’s World Cup debut, captain Refiloe Jane declared the federation had resolved the dispute.
Botswana isn’t the only country eager to compete with South Africa. Lots of non-African teams want a piece of them, actually, but their ability to play regularly against other teams on other continents is often hindered by — and highlights the limitations of — their FIFA ranking. Currently, South Africa is 54th in the world, according to world football’s governing body.
“For me, personally, I think the rankings are not a true reflection [of talent] because when you play on the continent, you only have Nigeria that’s better than you, so where [do] you get your points?” Ellis asked, referring to the points awarded to national teams based on match results against other countries that contribute to their overall FIFA score (Nigeria is ranked 40th).
“In Europe, you can play anyone with a high ranking and your points ranking goes up. So people got to have another look at that, because the African continent is always going to be some of the lowest-ranked teams because of that situation. But it doesn’t mean we are lowly ranked, that we cannot compete, because we’ve shown it over the years. When the likes of the USA and the Netherlands and Sweden and Japan and all of them want to play, but yet you’re ranked in the 50s, the 60s, it says something about you, because they could play better-ranked teams if they wanted to.”
Nigeria head coach Randy Waldrum also questioned the fairness of FIFA’s ranking system.
“I think we’ve shown we’re a better team than 40th in the world,” said the Texas native. “Hopefully we’re proving to the world right now that we belong at a higher place, but I’ve honestly never once heard our players talk about it.
“I just think the results of the World Cup will take care of itself, and hopefully it’ll all play out where we really should be at the end of it.”
Nigeria progressed in spite of its federation, too. Theirs was a more public conflict, punctuated by acrimonious remarks by the Nigerian Football Federation’s communications director about Waldrum, and the possibility of a team-wide protest in their opening World Cup match against Canada that loomed right up until the players took the field. The Super Falcons have fought so frequently with their federation that they’ve cycled through certain resistance tactics a few times before: in 2004 and 2016, for example, the team refused to fly back home after WAFCON until they had been paid the bonuses owed to them.
But alongside their jousts with the federation, the team grew. Waldrum tapped into his networks in the U.S. and Europe to seek out Nigerian players who had grown up outside of the country or had dual citizenship. Some, like Plumptre, were already sold on the idea, and in fact said the decision to play for Nigeria hardly required much thought; it was always part of the plan.
The 25-year-old grew up 30 minutes outside Leicester, England, and used to coach an under-12 team with mixed heritage girls. “I was like, you know what? I have a responsibility to learn about my heritage and I have the privilege to play football and use that to be able to learn,” she said.
Joining a team that represents a country of 230 million people, not including its vast diaspora, presents an inevitable learning curve, but the Nigerian players, from all the different parts of the world they’ve called home, found common ground working toward an ideal that transcends the game.
“Nigerians are extremely spiritual people,” said midfielder Toni Payne after their game against the Republic of Ireland. “We love to praise God or Allah, and I think that’s been a really big basis of our play. We’re not only playing for ourselves, it’s something bigger. It builds a lot of team chemistry for us and it shows how we fight for each other.”
The team, Payne said, has prayed and worshiped together every day. “It really brings us close and helps us to get to know each other, and I think it reflects on the field.”
Alozie is still easing her way into the team, having only spent two years with the Super Falcons. She’s not exactly a morning person, so it’s taken time for her to embrace the high energy, fueled by faith, that her teammates have brought throughout the tournament.
“One thing that’s beautiful about Nigeria’s soccer is how glorious they are and how grateful they are to God,” she said. “Nigerians have a lot of pride. We fight with so much heart. It allows us to not be afraid of what we come across. Having something like that is really just ingrained in us and has brought us together as a group and to perform as a team.”
In spite of the collective uproar about the colonial ties, the players themselves seem just as nonchalant about them as they are about rankings, at least publicly.
“I don’t think the team really cares about that,” said South Africa striker Jermaine Seoposenwe before the Netherlands game. “The past is in the past, yes. We can draw from the past sometimes as inspiration, but I don’t think it’s being discussed in the team.” She added that the team wanted to “create even more history for the people of South Africa, for ourselves, with all the little girls watching us, those back home.”
In the end, they were unable to take the next step, losing 2-0 to the Netherlands, but their achievement in reaching that stage, given all that went before it, will not be diminished by that result.
It’s one thing to celebrate the milestone of sending three African nations to the knockout stages; it’s quite another to raise a revolutionary fist at the narrative as a player. It’s understandable that an athlete would want to compartmentalize, if not ignore altogether, this aspect of the tournament.
Better to leave it to the spectators, whose projections of on-field revolution and reparation align with much of the mythology and folklore that have guided Black liberation movements around the world.
Besides, borders can be fluid. In the case of the French women’s national team especially, a large swath of players are of African descent. French defender Sakina Karchaoui was born in France to Moroccan parents. Moroccan striker Rosella Ayane was born in Reading to a Scottish mother and Moroccan father, and called her decision to represent her North African heritage a “no-brainer.”
“I have such a close connection with Morocco,” said Ayane. “It’s my dad’s side of the family. It has such a special place in my heart, and it just felt right. There’s a lot of talent in Morocco, and they’ll eventually be picked up and spotted but I’m so proud to be flying the flag for Morocco, for Africa as a continent and for other countries that don’t necessarily get the recognition they deserve.”
Sometimes blurring the borders allows for the creation of something bigger than the game that will last long after it ends.
“The experiences I’ve had with this team, I’ve never had with my football career,” said Plumptre. “Every game in this tournament so far, I’ve cried, and it’s normally when we’re dancing and singing into the stadium.”
She recalled a video she’s seen floating around social media of one such dance party where she was shown with her head down, “and people thought it was because I wasn’t used to it. I put my head down because I was crying. I get really overwhelmed by it because culturally, it feels so, so powerful, and I’m just lucky to be a part of it.”
(Top photo: Alex Grimm – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)