Side Kick

SIDEKICK

 

Just as I was reminiscing over what to fill this column with, I stumbled on this piece by a senior colleague and former editor of
Kickoff, Colin Udoh. Married to former Super Falcons striker, Mercy
Akide, Colin is no doubt an authority in Nigerian female football.
Chiejine’s death highlights lack of attention towards Nigerian female
footballers
Two weeks after her death, the loss of former Super Falcons star,
Ifeanyi Chiejine at the young age of 36 continues to baffle, both in
terms of cause and reaction in Nigeria.
No cause of death has been released, and the Nigeria Football
Federation previously said it had no idea she was sick, but it was
gathered that Chiejine has been told that she had been unwell for a
while.
Yinka Kudaisi, who played with Chiejine, painted a sobering picture of
the midfielder’s deteriorating condition as far back as last year.
“We met at a friendly match last year organised by Coca-Cola and I
wasn’t happy when I saw her.
“She was looking so old. She told me that she has been battling with
sickness. She even told me that her hair was falling off.
“I told her to come out so that her friends can see her and know
what’s up with her and help her.
“After the friendly game, I reminded her again. But she didn’t come
and that was the last time I saw her,” Kudaisi divulged.
If Chiejine’s death was sad, the lack of ceremony preceding, during,
and after her funeral was even more doleful. While the press rallied
to report her death, what followed was glaring in its minimalism.
The funeral itself, organised within a week of her death, was marked
by the absence of top sporting officials or government representation,
with next to no mention in the press of her storied but short career.
For the record, Chiejine was the first captain of the U-20 team, a
side that won an Africa Games gold medal, and played in three Women’s
World Cups and two Olympic Games.
For a player who was part of the defining moments of Nigerian women’s
football, including reaching the quarterfinals of the 1999 World Cup,
the lack of recognition presented a desolate look of a patriot
discarded.
She is the first to pass on from that legendary Super Falcons class of
’99, which set the tone for what the team has gone on to become. The
core of that team had won the first African Women’s Championship in
1998 and qualified for the World Cup in 1999. The team went on to win
further African titles in 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2006, and qualified for
the Olympic Games in 2004.
At the 1999 World Cup, their exuberant flamboyance and talent saw them
earn two group stage wins, losing only to eventual champions US,
against whom they were impudent enough to take the lead before falling
1-7. They were knocked out by Brazil in the quarters as the South
Americans won 4-3 in extra-time.
Those two victories not only earned them a place at the 2000 Olympics
in Sydney, but also secured their place in Nigerian football folklore.
They were the team that established women’s sport as a serious
undertaking in Nigeria, and opened the door to women’s football on the
continent.
That team brought Nigeria together at a time when the Super Eagles
were at the beginning of a downward slope after the heroics of 1994.
The Falcons dominated African women’s football in a swashbuckling
fashion which is yet to be repeated.
Such was the heights of the bar they set that most of the players of
that generation stand favourably alongside the men’s Class of 1994.
Captain Florence Omagbemi is still the longest-serving captain of both
national football teams.
Forward Mercy Akide set scoring records and became the first African
international to play collegiate and professional football outside
Nigeria, and she remains the only such player inducted into two Halls
of Fame in the US.
Goalkeeper Ann Chiejine is the stuff of legend after competing at the
2000 African Women’s Championship while pregnant. And Nkiru Okosieme,
of football royalty – her father and brother were both internationals
– was one of the most accomplished midfielders in history, playing in
four Women’s World Cups and captaining the side as teenager.
Despite their accomplishments, members of this squad have received
little or no rewards for their service. Unfortunately, they excelled
at a time when former president Olusegun Obasanjo instituted a policy,
subsequently reversed, of presidential handshakes for sporting
achievements.
That meant that at the height of their powers, all they received as
reward was a literal handshake and a smile, and maybe a small bonus
that would be scoffed at today.
And while the current generation of players have failed to hit the
dominant heights that the Class of 1999 scaled at world level, they
have also been given national awards when their forebears have not
been so honoured.
Chiejine is the first member of that squad to pass on, but the second
of this generation, after Ajuma Ottache, who joined the team around
2004.
The circumstances leading to her death and that of Ottache, for whom
help came too late, must raise questions about what Nigeria needs to
do for that generation of players. Are there any more who are
suffering in silence? Are there those who need help or rehabilitation?
A few played until they could barely walk, just so they could make a
few extra dollars or Naira. Many have emigrated, including the likes
of Patience Avre, Eberechi Opara, Okosieme, Omagbemi and Prisca
Emeafu.
The lack of representation at Chiejine’s funeral is a lasting slight
on the team, and one that must be rectified urgently. Chiejine and
other members of that team, including their coaches led by Ismaila
Mabo must be given national honours and rewarded for their service to
Nigeria.

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