Nigeria’s Super Falcons travelled to the 2022 Women Africa Cup of Nations with ambitions of extending their record haul of championship crowns. But following defeat to Zambia in the third place playoff, the team returned home without so much as a medal.
It was only the second time in their history that they failed to win a medal at the WAFCON (and all its various iterations), claiming 11 titles over the past three decades. Only Equatorial Guinea (2) and South Africa (1) have won the tournament too.
The last time this happened, when the team lost to South Africa in the semifinal of the 2008 tournament, and then Cameroon in the third place playoff, then-coach Kadiri Ikhana was fired without ceremony.
Despite mounting pressure, the same does not appear to be the case with Randy Waldrum, with NFF president Amaju Pinnick telling ESPN: “Randy is good enough and he will be staying and taking us to the World Cup. He has a contract and we have to respect it.”
But how did things go so badly wrong for the Super Falcons, and what lessons can be taken away from the train wreck of their 2022 WAFCON campaign?
It starts, obviously, with the coach. The American’s appointment did not exactly have Nigeria fans skipping and jumping for joy. His resume of mostly college jobs with one NWSL stint in Houston did not lend itself to many expectations of success.
After nearly two years in charge, Waldrum appears to be proving his critics right. In Morocco, Waldrum’s choices were characterised by a plethora of strange decisions, not the least of which was playing his talent completely out of position.
Ashleigh Plumptre, a centreback, was played at fullback, where she struggled all game long in that opening day loss to South Africa.
The Leicester City defender was not shy to leave a veiled rebuke of the coach’s decision after that game: “I prefer to play as a centreback, but I will give one hundred per cent wherever the coach plays me.”
When she eventually slotted in at centreback, both as a substitute and when Onome Ebi was injured, her partnership with Osinachi Ohale looked rock solid.
Plumptre was not the only one. Toni Payne, a forward and midfielder, was played as a fullback, despite a slew of natural fullbacks in the squad. And starting Rita Chikwelu over the energetic, slick-passing Ngozi Okobi-Okeoghene was nothing short of head-scratching.
Waldrum also failed to understand the winning DNA, culture, and mentality of the team, seemingly assuming worst-case scenarios rather than instilling a champion-worthy mindset.
Reminded that the Super Falcons have qualified for every World Cup since 1991 besides being 11-time African champions, the American said it still could not be taken for granted.
Despite Nigeria indeed qualifying for 2023 by reaching the semifinals at this WAFCON, he said: “It’s your opinion, obviously, to make the assumption that Nigeria is going to qualify every World Cup.
“It’s not a good assumption to make especially considering the growth of the women’s game in Africa. The teams are much better now than they were 10 years ago so I don’t think it’s automatic.
“It wasn’t easy to qualify this year. We have probably have the hardest journey of any team to get to this point. We beat a very strong Ghana team that would have done well in this tournament, we beat a really good Ivory Coast team then having to come here and have South Africa in the group.
“Are we disappointed we didn’t get those results? Absolutely, I’m not going to sit here and say it’s not disappointing.”
The consequences have been plain to see.
For the first time ever, the Super Falcons lost a previously unthinkable three games at the competition. They also suffered first-time defeats to Morocco and Zambia, and tied for two consecutive defeats plus no podium finish with the 2008 squad.
But it is not just about the tournament. Waldrum also went into the books as the Super Falcons coach with the worst record over the space of a year, and also the worst win-loss record in the team’s history.
In total, he has lost eight games in the space of the 12 months since June of 2021. It began at the USWNT Summer Series where his side lost to Jamaica and the USA. That was followed by a loss to South Africa at the Aisha Buhari Cup, then one to Ghana in WAFCON qualifying, before succumbing to Canada in a two-game tour.
No other Super Falcons coach has suffered that many losses and unsurprisingly has added fuel to the fire for those who want the coach gone. And that includes officials at the NFF, who told ESPN anonymously that the team had regressed under the American.
Asked about those opinions, Waldrum said he had not been told anything: “Nobody has spoken to me from the federation. It’s not in my place to discuss that. I think the president would evaluate and give feedback.
“I will go back and look at all of the positives we have done last year with this team and I will come back to tell you that it is not an easy task to qualify for the World Cup.”
Waldrum was not alone in undermining the Super Falcons’ campaign. He had help, from the NFF themselves.
Prior to their semifinal game against Morocco, the players staged a sit-in protest, boycotting training to demand payment of their allowances and bonuses.
The NFF quickly scrambled to pay each player about $1000, to cover 10 days of their daily allowances, with a promise to pay the bonuses after. Those payments had not come through by the time the team left Morocco.
For a team with title ambitions, this was a shocking dereliction. But it is par for the course for Nigeria. In 2004, the team staged a sit-in protest at their hotel in South Africa after winning the title.
They were back at it again in 2016, after they won the title in Cameroon. The players staged a street demonstration in Abuja to demand their dues. And in 2019, they did the same at the FIFA World Cup in France.
As the team prepares to go to the World Cup next year, the American coach, and his employers — who have handed him a vote of confidence — will have to find solutions to these problems.
Waldrum thinks he has some of them: “We found some answers for some positions moving forward for the World Cup. Some answers are probably going to be positive for some players in the World Cup and not so much for others moving forward.
“What did we learn from here that can carry over and help us be successful in the World Cup? Those are some of the positive things we look at.”
He has two games against the USWNT in September, and another against Japan, to show that those lessons have been absorbed. If he does not, that vote of confidence may not count for much.