How the CAF Women’s Olympic qualifiers turned out to be an unpredictable affair

When 25 nations paraded for the start of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Women's Olympic Qualifying tournament last April, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, and Cameroon were among the favourites to bag the sole ticket to Tokyo due to their strong foothold in the women's game in Africa. 

The Super Falcons – Nigeria – and Banyana Banyana – South Africa – had been the most successful African nations in previous qualifiers with each nation achieving two consecutive appearances at the summer Olympics, the Super Falcons in 2004 and 2008 and Banyana Banyana in 2012 and 2016.

Cameroon featured in the London Olympic games in 2012 and while the Black Queens – Ghana – hadn't qualified for an Olympic games, the closest they came was narrowly missing out to Brazil in a playoff in 2008, they were still in the front pack due to their continental success in other tournaments.

However, 11 months, five rounds and 41 games later, it wasn't one of the big hitters, but rather little-known Zambia who emerged as Africa's representatives for the Tokyo games.

Just like Zimbabwe's qualification for the 2016 games, the unexpected happened. So how did the CAF Olympic qualifiers produce an underdog as its flag bearer?

Fall of the 'giants'

Nigeria were eliminated from the competition in the third round

The Olympic ticket was up for grabs when Nigeria, South Africa, and Ghana exited. 

South Africa and Nigeria lost in the second and third rounds respectively to teams they were expected to easily overcome in Botswana and Ivory Coast. With the momentum from the World Cup in France stopped, the disappointment from the two teams littered with players who feature in foreign leagues was obvious. 

Banyana Banyana head coach Desiree Ellis described their loss as the 'lowest low' as they couldn’t unlock Botswana’s defence who offered little threat in advanced areas of the field.

Nigeria's star forward Asisat Oshoala pointed to the absence of senior players as a precursor to their woes after the Ivory Coast defeat. The likes of Desiree Oparanozie, Rita Chikwelu, and Onome Ebi were excluded from the squad on administrative grounds. Former captain Ebi explained to a Nigerian publication that only six senior players were called up due to the 'nature of competition'. The insinuation was that they were overlooked because the game was a qualifier or due to the calibre of opponent.

Head coach Thomas Dennerby was also absent. His fall out with the federation over claims of several breaches of his contract, including unpaid wages and a lack of co-operation, saw him excuse himself from the team before the two-legged Ivory Coast tie.

Christopher Danjuma was therefore named the Super Falcons interim coach, something Oshoala said affected squad selection. More than half of the team was made up of inexperienced players, a huge difference from the personnel at the World Cup.

Meanwhile, Cameroon fell at the same axe they did five years ago. A victory at home and a loss away was resolved with an away goal rule elimination. The Indomitable Lionesses still hold out of hope of making it to Tokyo though – a playoff against Chile, currently suspended due to COVID-19, awaits.

Ghana’s Olympic dreams were extinguished by Kenya. Their last friendly match ended in a 1-1 draw, and the script wasn't all that different this time. A very close game where the Black Queens were held to a barren draw was followed by 1-0 Kenyan victory. This is a fixture that may well turn into one of Africa's great rivalries.

No pushovers 

Zambia will be heading to the Tokyo Olympics

When there is nothing to lose, there’s a lot to be gained; this seemed to be the mantra of the 'smaller' nations throughout the qualifiers. In a two legged tie, there's always a chance.

Zambia won many hearts during the competition: a golden generation that’s made history twice, first by qualifying for the U17 World Cup in 2014, the first of any of its age groups, and now in achieving qualification for the Olympics. Nine of the players in that squad six years ago were part of the Olympic qualifying team and might well make the trip to Tokyo.

The fact that midfielder Grace Chanda was the top scorer of the qualifiers with eight goals is no fluke. The versatility of the Zambian forward line was just as impressive with Barbara Banda and Hellen Mubanga putting in decisive performances throughout, notably against Cameroon.

Zambia won many hearts during the competition: a golden generation that’s made history twice.

Elsewhere, Kenya, Botswana, and Ivory Coast also gave good accounts of themselves, a testament to the rise of nations once defined as small.

The gap between nations is gradually getting smaller. With increased regional competitions, more players are getting much-needed exposure against tougher opponents hence the competitive nature in bigger competitions.

While there's still a long way to go, these small gains are indicative of the changing landscape of women’s football in Africa.

Why it’s good for Africa

In the 2020 Olympic qualifiers there were no easy wins. Each team had to be at their fluent best. While the biennial Women’s Cup of Nations can be seen as predictable, the Olympic qualifiers offer a different experience to teams, fans, administrators and the media.

This all speaks to the importance of investment and development of the game. Part of Zambia’s 2014 U17 world cup class has since graduated to the senior side. Kenya’s women’s football landscape has been on an upward trajectory in the last four years: they reached the penultimate round of this set of qualifiers, going a step further than they did in 2015. Ivory Coast, who withdrew from the qualifiers in 2015, successfully took part this time round.

Football administrators are waking up to the potential of the game. Women’s leagues are being set up in different countries across the continent with the target of providing a professional environment in the long term. Regional bodies have set up zonal tournaments – CECAFA in East Africa, COSAFA in the Southern region, WAFU in West Africa, UNICAF in North Africa and UNIFFAC in Central Africa – for various age groups to facilitate more game time for teams.

Football administrators are waking up to the potential of women's football in Africa.

Competition among teams is on the rise: Zambia is threatening South Africa's might in the Southern region. Kenya are currently the East African champions having dislodged two-time winners Tanzania. Nations like Sudan and Egypt are returning to the international stage after a long spell away.

Media and fans are getting on board. Though there aren't yet any official figures published by CAF on the extent of coverage by the mainstream media or stadium attendance, stories featured on television and in print and online platforms. The event had a strong social media presence as individual bloggers provided unique content.

Zambia will wait another year to embark on a historic journey to Tokyo after the postponement of the games due to the coronavirus pandemic, but their success remains a symbol of growth and a shift from the norm. One that hopefully, Africa can continue to build upon.

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