Exclusive: Ifeoma Onumonu talks Nigeria’s World Cup ambitions

Ifeoma Onumonu of NJ/NY Gotham FC dribbles the ball during a rainy match.
Ifeoma Onumonu playing for NJ/NY Gotham FC in an NWSL game against the Portland Thorns FC on May 30, 2021. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The US-born Nigerian forward Ifeoma Onumonu has set her sights on not just Africa Cup of Nations glory but on spoiling the party in Australia and New Zealand next year.

Last Thursday, the Nigeria Super Falcons qualified for a record ninth World Cup when they beat Cameroon in the quarter-finals of the WAFCON, which doubles as qualification for the World Cup.

Fulfilling Nigerian dream

For Onumonu, playing international football—let alone at a World Cup—was just a dream.

“Honestly, I didn’t know it would happen. I think it was a dream. I definitely wrote it down years ago before the last World Cup. And obviously, that didn’t happen. I didn’t see how that would happen,” Onumonu told Her Football Hub.

The centre forward was born in California to Nigerian parents and was pushed away from her Nigerian roots as she felt the need to fit in.

“When I was younger, I was more integrated into Nigerian culture. But obviously, as you get older, you become less influenced from your parents and more from your friends.”

Growing up as a Super Eagles fan, Onumonu dreamt of playing for the Super Falcons. But as time went on, that dream looked to have gone. She played football at university and then signed a professional contract with the Boston Breakers in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).

She has since had a journeywoman career around the NWSL, playing for the Portland Thorns and Reign FC before joining Sky Blue FC (now Gothan FC) in New Jersey—where she plays currently.

A new opportunity on the international stage

While at Gotham, new Nigerian coach Randy Waldrum—an American who had previously managed in the NWSL—reached out to Onumonu.

“It actually happened just before the pandemic. Randy got in touch with me, asking if I had a Nigerian passport which I didn’t.

“I had an arduous journey to get my passport. Luckily I live in New Jersey on the cusp of New York, and there is an embassy there. There were a few back-to-back trips, a few parking tickets later, to get my passport.”

Onomonu joined up with the national team for a training camp in the US before making her debut in 2021. Since then, she has become a key player for the Super Falcons, playing as a striker or off the wing.

She scored her first goals—a brace—against a strong Ivory Coast team to qualify the Super Falcons for this year’s WAFCON. The importance of that moment was not lost on Onumonu—who, despite being one of the older players in the squad at 28, is one of the least experienced at the international level.

“It was surreal, being a part of the qualification. Even being here. Being a part of where we are now. Truly being on the field. Participating in the points that we’re getting,” she said.

Challenges for the Super Falcons

Despite reaching the WAFCON semi-finals, it has not been an easy ride for the Super Falcons. Over the last couple of years, they suffered a humiliating 4-2 home loss to rivals South Africa in the Aisha Buhari invitational tournament. They followed that up with their first ever loss in a WAFCON qualifier, a 1-0 loss to Ghana in the second leg (Nigeria went through 2-1 on aggregate).

Coach Waldrum came under increasing pressure when his team lost their WAFCON opener to South Africa again, who comprehensively outplayed his side. The loss was compounded by an increasingly frayed relationship between Waldrum and the Nigerian media, who he accused of “being negative.”

But since then, the Nigerians—with the help of Onumonu—beat debutants Botswana and Burundi before going past their old rivals Cameroon in the quarter-finals. The match’s only goal came from an Onumonu cross that Rasheedat Ajibade tucked away.

Path to the World Cup

The tournament and opposition have not been what Onumonu was expecting.

“African football is a bit different. In the US, I think technique is pushed for people to be playing the same. In the African game, there is more space to grow as your own player. When you’re dealing with players who are so unique individually, it’s very hard to plan a game plan when you don’t know what this player is going to bring today.”

“Also, they tackle harder,” she says, smiling at the thought of the number of heavy challenges she has received at the tournament.

But Onumonu is not content with a World Cup place. She wants the WAFCON title that has become a birthright for the Super Eagles over the years, having won nine of the 11 editions.

“First of all, it was a little bit of a weight off our chests. That was the first notch, qualifying for the World Cup. Now we want to win this tournament.”

But the Super Falcons have a tough test ahead of them. They face a Moroccan side in excellent form in the semi-finals. And Onumonu will have to contend with playing in front of a cauldron-like atmosphere, as 45,000 Moroccans will be roaring on the hosts.

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