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AFCON Archives Nigeria: How defiance shaped dominance for Super Falcons

In this week’s AFCON Archives, the weekly deep dive into the history of Africa’s continental football tournament, we’re charting the rise of Nigeria’s Super Falcons and Super Eagles.

AFCON Archives Nigeria: How Super Eagles started soaring

The Super Falcons rank as the most dominant side in Africa Cup Of Nations history, claiming eleven titles out of a possible fourteen since the women’s tournament began in 1991.

But this dominance was only made possible by a story of defiance…

“Former Table Tennis Star, Mrs Mabel Segun, appealed to the Nigerian men to desist from the disheartening habit of not allowing their sportswomen wives to take part in active sports” / West African Pilot (Lagos, Nigeria) June 25th 1976

Women’s football showed great promise in colonial Nigeria.

In 1943, the West African Pilot reported on a game between the men and women of the African Sports Club in Jos.

The women won the game and their striker, Mero Fulani, was heralded as the “brilliant centre forward of the women’s team.”

However, just seven years later, the Nigerian FA would deem football ‘unsuitable for women’ at the behest of their English counterpart.

Four decades would pass before The Super Falcons emerged, but the intervening period saw women’s football thrive against the odds.

Defiance before dominance

Dr Chuka Onwumechili is a Super Falcons fanatic and the author of Women’s Football in Africa, a forthcoming book chronicling the rise of women’s football across the continent.

He recalls the unflinching determination of Nigerian women facing the ban.

“If you go and do the research and look at the newspapers, the women simply refused to stop playing. They were banned from playing on any field owned by the FA. The only place they could find to play were school grounds.”

Despite institutional opposition, newspapers often reported positively on women’s sport in post-colonial Africa / Evening News (Accra, Ghana) January 8th 1966

Despite these adverse conditions, women’s football teams were established across the nation.

“There are stories of Port Harcourt 11s playing Lagos 11s. They would raise money and travel by bus to Lagos and then back to Port Harcourt to play these games,” says Dr Onwumechili.

Teams emerged in smaller cities like Warri and Sapele too, and visions for a women’s association soon emerged.

In 1971, the Nigerian Observer reported on six women’s football clubs in the Midwest who planned to form an independent association.

“They [the NFA] said, no, we’re not accepting women’s soccer. So the women decided, we’re going to form our own FA then.

“An FA was actually formed in the Midwest region of Nigeria. With six clubs, six women clubs to start off,” Dr Onwumechili adds.

The resolve shown in this period was the foundation of The Super Falcons’ later successes at AFCON.

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Nigeria participated in the inaugural editions of the Women’s AFCON and the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991

“That resistance to the British [colonial] authorities was critical.

“Because a lot of young girls were already playing, it was easy for Nigeria to build a team before other African teams,” says Dr Onwumechili.

Newspaper clipping from 1963 with the headline "Girls Beat Fat Men 5-4"
One of the more bizarre ways in which women’s football defied an NFA ban / West African Pilot (Lagos, Nigeria) March 1963

The Super Falcons were also strengthened by elite athletes from other sports.

“Players were recruited from the handball team, the Imo Grasshoppers, who dominated women’s handball.

“Players were recruited from track and field. All these players were recruited to form the very first team that represented Nigeria in terms of women’s football,” explains Dr Onwumechili.

Dominance and disregard 

The Super Falcons won the first seven women’s AFCONs in a period of uninterrupted dominance between 1991 and 2006.

The Falcons have broken records on an individual level too, with Perpetua Nkwocha holding the crown for the most goals scored at a single AFCON (11) and the joint most goals scored in an AFCON final (4).

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Whereas Ghana had outperformed Nigeria in the early years of the men’s AFCON, The Super Falcons had the beating of their West African rivals.

The ‘Jollof Derby’ – Nigeria versus Ghana – has played out in three AFCON finals, all of which have come in the women’s competition.

The Super Falcons have triumphed on all three occasions, scoring five and conceding zero across the 1998, 2002, and 2006 finals.

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Nkwocha (R) celebrates the winning goal in the 2006 final

The unprecedented dominance of The Falcons is made even more remarkable in light of the obstacles they have faced.

In 2019, captain Desire Oparanozie bemoaned the lack of recognition for Super Falcons’ successes within the Nigerian Football Federation.

“We have done the nation proud and I think the results over the years are there for all to see,

“We are the most successful female team in Africa, yet we have the largest disparities between men’s and women’s pay,” she said.

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Oparanozie after Nigeria’s group-stage triumph over Australia at the 2023 Women’s World Cup

As much as Super Falcons’ history is littered with triumphs, protests have been similarly common.

After winning their eighth AFCON in 2016, The Super Falcons staged a sit-in at their hotel in Abuja to protest unpaid bonuses.

The players considered another sit-in after the 2019 World Cup, but the NFF eventually paid out their World Cup bonuses and allowances, amongst other outstanding payments.

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The Super Falcons lost 3-0 to Germany in the round-of-16

Perhaps most famously, The Super Falcons refused to return home from South Africa after AFCON 2004.

“When they won the trophy in South Africa, the reason why they seized the trophy and refused to return to Nigeria was because they weren’t paid.

“So they decided we’re going to be staying in this hotel. We are not joining any flight back home to Nigeria. The president at that time was Olusegun Obasanjo.

“When he got wind of this story, he said, what the heck is going on here? So he sent a private jet to South Africa to bring these girls home. And when the girls were brought home, they were paid,” Dr Onwumechili explains.

The NFF had not only failed to fulfil its financial promises to the players, but some of its officials had accused them of affiliation with Biafra, the Republic that seceded during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70).

“The officials of the team did not receive awards. Because some of these officials were not supportive of the girls,

“I remember one of them was making claims that these girls, because most of them were from the eastern part of the country, were Biafran sympathizers,” Dr Onwumechili adds.

Dominance after disregard?

Though The Super Falcons’ primacy is largely intact, Dr Onwumechili fears that their crown may slip in the coming years.

“If I had to bet on a team that would dominate women’s soccer right now, I would tell you that’s Morocco, not The Falcons,” he says.

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South Africa defeated Morocco in the 2022 AFCON final

“Morocco has done something that no African FA has done. Nigeria is not even anywhere close,

“Morocco has budgeted a substantial amount of money to support women’s football. And they have what they call a five-year program to develop women’s soccer. And it’s already yielding fruit,” he explains.

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Morocco are hosting the 2024 Women’s AFCON

Social barriers also stand in the way of footballing growth.

Nearly three-quarters of a century has elapsed since the NFA deemed football unsuitable for women, but there are still those promoting this belief.

“Is Nigeria at its potential? My answer is no. Because when we talk about Nigeria, there is a large population of Nigerian women that are not even considering playing soccer,” says Dr Onwumechili.

Religious opposition has impeded the growth of the women’s game, especially in Northern Nigeria.

“[Women’s] teams are not there in the far north of Nigeria, and most of this is due to religion.”

The Super Falcons’ dominance, then, comes in spite of disregard and derision at both a social and institutional level.

Their titles are testaments to the women who refused to stop playing, and those who continue to do so.

You can read the full AFCON Archives collection here.


  • Jonny Coffey

    Jonny Coffey, 21, is a London-based sports journalist focusing on football. Fascinated by tactics, Coffey is famed for his introduction of inverted full backs to the second division of Cambridge college football, and his admiration for Carlo Ancelotti’s eyebrows. A lifelong Arsenal fan, his interest in analysing wing play is a thinly-veiled ploy to rave about Bukayo Saka.