On 3 December last year, something extraordinary happened. Fans started arriving at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo in Yaounde a few hours before dawn for a match with a mid-afternoon start.
The stadium was effectively at its 40,000 capacity a full five hours before kick-off. The match in question was the final of the CAF Africa Women Cup of Nations. It is a moment that will surely go down as a milestone event for African women’s football.
Local hopes of a maiden title were, however, dashed as favourites Nigeria earned a 1-0 triumph. A few months on and Nigeria forward Francesca Ordega still gets shivers of excitement when the topic turns to that continental decider.
“This crowd was something else,” an animated Ordega told FIFA.com. “Even for men, you don’t often see that kind of support. The place was crazy that day, people couldn’t even get into the stadium. This was really something else, truly amazing.
“I was very happy that we won in front of all the Lionesses fans. It is a different feeling altogether. Playing against Cameroon was really tough. They are a great team, and everyone in Cameroon was supporting them. But we had a lot of professionals in our team, and we were able to count on that experience. Also having a female coach (Florence Omagbemi) and female technical crew … the feeling was somehow different.”
Not that Ordega is inexperienced in the ways of world football. At just 23, Ordega has already featured in four FIFA competitions, and played in five countries – Russia, Sweden, USA, Australia and Nigeria. Also, she has just started a third season at Washington Spirit, a largely unheralded side who took the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) by storm last term before fading to finish second.
Africa’s bright new dawn
That win in Yaounde was a tenth continental victory for Nigeria, with the Super Falcons record spoilt only by two wins for Equatorial Guinea. While Nigeria have long had it their own way, the spread of talent at the recent continental championship is evidence of a rapidly-changing environment on the Mother Continent.
Ordega says she has seen significant change during her relatively short career. “The first time I played against Cameroon, it was like playing against babies, we were just toying with them and taking them for granted,” she said.
“But now it is different, [Cameroon] were tough and hard. I’m proud that things have changed in my generation compared to how they used to be. In the near future things are going to be different.
“African countries are really improving. Before it was just Nigeria and Ghana, but now it is not just those teams. Everyone [in Africa] is coming on so much. Trust me, in five or six years [African women’s football] is going to be different.”
Super Falcons seek new heights
Despite a group-stage exit at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™, Ordega believes there is reason for optimism about the Super Falcons’ future. It is hard to argue. After all, Nigeria have shone brightly at recent global finals at youth level, where the likes of Desire Oparanozie and Asisat Oshoala have proven themselves to be genuine superstars.
“I think we did very well in Canada but we lacked experience,” Ordega said. “Most of our players were 21, 22 and that is a big difference to the likes of Sweden and USA. But we hope to keep growing as a team so that when the next World Cup comes around we will reach the next level.”
Ordega says the talent pool in Nigeria is enormous, but still needs to be developed appropriately. “We have so many young girls playing the game now,” Ordega said. “I get a lot of messages on my Facebook, my Instagram, saying ‘I want to be like you when I grow up’ and ‘I want to be a professional’.”