BRISBANE, Australia — The Super Falcons looked at the draw and saw back-to-back games against Olympic champion Canada and co-host Australia to open their run at the Women's World Cup.
Onome Ebi and her Nigeria team didn't flinch, despite the brutal two-match opener.
After holding Canada to a 0-0 draw, Nigeria is determined to continue its unbeaten start to the tournament on Thursday against the home team.
Four years after advancing to the round of 16, No. 40-ranked Nigeria wasn't given much chance by pundits of making it out of the group. That's a scenario Ebi revels in.
“We like it when people don’t believe in us, so they will think we are just pushovers,” the Nigeria captain said. “That motivates the team so we’ll go out there and prove everybody wrong and make ourselves proud.”
Coach Randy Waldrum recognizes that facing the Matildas will present a different set of challenges than what they faced against Canada.
The Australians "are extremely dangerous in their transition moments,” Waldrum said. “Canada is more possession-based, but Australia has the ability to attack quickly on the counter.”
Nigeria will welcome back Rasheedat Ajibade and Halimatu Ayinde who are returning from suspension. Australia, on the other hand, will be without injured superstar striker Sam Kerr and her understudy, Mary Fowler, who played in the 1-0 opening win over Ireland.
Nigeria is no stranger to the Women’s World Cup, having qualified for all nine tournaments. Advancing beyond the group stage has been a challenge, however, with the team only doing so twice.
One explanation for the team’s struggles at the World Cup has been its vulnerability on defense, having conceded more goals at the World Cup than any other team.
The shutout of Canada was a first for Nigeria in a World Cup opener, giving the team confidence that its defense could hold up against Australia.
“Everyone is throwing their bodies on the line, defenders, forwards and midfielders,” Nigeria's Houston Dash defender Michelle Alozie said. “We are defensively sound and we can do that with a really big team.”
The 23-player roster Waldrum selected contains 12 players who are making a Women’s World Cup debut.
Seven of those players were in Nigeria’s starting lineup against Canada with three in the defense and four in midfield.
“I learned that we’re ready for the big stage,” Waldrum said. “I thought the players that were there for the first time did a really good job for us, and I’m extremely impressed.”
Ebi, who made her World Cup debut in 2003 and has been with the team longer than any other staff member or player, is impressed with how her younger teammates have handled their first World Cup.
“When I started playing, I was so scared,” Ebi said. “I don’t see that in them. They just blend into the team like they’ve been with the team forever.”
After entering the tournament coming off a disappointing fourth-place finish at the Women’s African Cup of Nations, Nigeria was the only African team to avoid defeat in its opening game.
“The team is so new with young players, fast players and strong players,” Ebi said. “We have almost everything you need in a team to go far.”
Brooke Evans is a student at the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute.
AP Women’s World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/fifa-womens-world-cup