Gotham FC striker Ifeomu Onumonu is setting her sights on helping Nigeria win a record-extending 10th title at the Africa Women Cup of Nations [AWCON] in July, but says she’s having to learn to ignore her technical American style when it comes to Africa’s hard-tackling football.
Onumonu, who was born in California, is one of 25 players named by coach Randy Waldrum for the tournament in Morocco from July 2, and one of nine Super Falcons players who will be making their first appearance at the tournament.
The nine-time winners are not only going for a 10th tournament title, but also hoping to extend their record of being one of a rare group of countries to qualify for every FIFA Women’s World Cup since inception in 1999.
The thought of helping Nigeria win that double digit title has the 2017 Boston Breakers Draft pick giddy with excitement.
“I can’t even wrap my head around it because I think it doesn’t feel like it will be real in the moment,” Onumonu, who has one goal in seven NWSL appearances this season, told ESPN.
“It would be like probably the biggest trophy I’ve ever held in my life and one of the biggest accomplishments that I’ve ever had in my life.”
READ: Your guide to Women’s Euros, AWCON, and more this July
South Africa’s Banyana Banyana have become an increasingly real threat and are expected to provide the biggest test for Onumonu and the Super Falcons, but the forward remains convinced that despite recent struggles, the record champions remain the best team in Africa.
She added: “[We] lost it a few years ago, but the goal this year is we’re not allowing that to happen again. Especially with the quality of this team. It’s not a lie, I think that there is no African team that is better than Nigeria at this moment.
“So, I just can’t wait to start the competition and bring it home.”
Despite having just five caps to her name, Onumonu has proven her value with three goals. Two of those came during a hard-fought qualifying game against Cote d’Ivoire, which propelled the Nigerians to Morocco. The other came in a friendly against Canada where the Nigerians came this close to a win before the Canadians claimed a 2-2 draw.
Going into her first senior tournament at age 28, Onumonu admits that being a rookie in international play, even though she represented the USA at under 23 level and has played in the NWSL for years, will take some figuring out.
She added: “I think the most difficult part for me is sort of being new… but not new. Like, in the US I’m a veteran player, but with the Nigerian national team, I’m a new player. So it’s sort of trying to like find out where I fit in.
“I’m 28 years old so I’m very comfortable with who I am in a sense, but then getting put in the position of being a rookie again, trying to figure it out, trying to integrate and not allowing myself to be uncomfortable…
“I understand that I am new to the situation and so I am the one who’s going to have to change to some degree and not ask other players to change to suit me and being okay with that.
“So I think for me, that was sort of the hardest part to wrap my head around because, again, I’m a veteran rookie, in some sense which is very difficult to balance.”
That is not the only adjustment the US-born player is having to make. After spending her entire career playing against teams in the USA, Onumonu found it a bit of a culture shock playing against the physical approach of African teams.
“I think it was definitely a learning process. It was very different from what I’m used to. African players tackle differently. It’s a whole different game almost with them,” she said.
“I have a Ghanaian teammate [Jennifer Cudjoe] here in the US and one of the things that was happening at training was that she was injuring some of our own players, because she tackled hard.
“And now having experienced playing Cote d’Ivoire, twice in the AWCON qualifiers, I was like, okay, well, I see why she tackles the way she tackles like, this is sort of African soccer.
“It was a bit intimidating at first. But ultimately, like looking back at that experience, I think it makes me a better player. Because we don’t tackle like that in the US. Having experienced that, I feel it like made me stronger to some degree. So it was a good experience all in all and very different but good.”
Beyond the AWCON, however, Onumonu is thinking bigger. Nigeria have qualified for every World Cup since the inaugural edition in 1999, but have only ever made it past the group phase twice.
Onumonu is not only looking to equal that accomplishment, but to go all the way: “Just seeing the quality of this team, it’s become, a dream and I don’t just want to go to the World Cup, I want to win the World Cup.
“People might think I’m delusional, but anything could happen, anything happens at the World Cup.
“Obviously, there are different countries that have had their women’s national team a little bit more established for more years, but when I look at the quality of this team, I think anything is really possible.”
To do that, she and her teammates would need to score more goals. Onumonu feels that they can do it, saying her two-goal heroics against the Ivoriens was just a taste of what is to come.
She added: “Despite the two goals, I don’t believe I played my best match. I feel blessed and honoured to have been able to contribute in that way. But I think there’s just so much more I can do, so much more I can grow with the team, that I’m looking forward to come in July in Morocco.”
With the likes of Asisat Oshoala (Barcelona), Uchenna Kanu (Tigres UANL), Toni Payne (Sevilla) and Gift Monday (Bayelsa Queens), that should be more than enough firepower to have the rest of the field quaking in their boots.
Nigeria AWCON squad:
Goalkeepers: Chiamaka Nnadozie (Paris FC, France); Tochukwu Oluehi (Maccabi Kishronot Hadera, Israel); Yewande Balogun (Coppermine United, USA)
Defenders: Glory Ogbonna (Santa Teresa FC, Spain); Onome Ebi (En Avant Guingamp, France); Osinachi Ohale (Deportivo Alaves, Spain); Ashleigh Plumptre (Leicester City, England); Nicole Payne (West Virginia University, USA); Michelle Alozie (Houston Dash, USA); Akudo Ogbonna (Edo Queens)
Midfielders: Peace Efih (Kiryat Gat, Israel); Halimatu Ayinde (Eskilstuna FC, Sweden); Toni Oyedupe Payne (Sevilla FC, Spain); Regina Otu (Minsk FC, Belarus); Christy Ucheibe (SL Benfica, Portugal); Rasheedat Ajibade (Atletico Madrid, Spain); Rita Chikwelu (Madrid CFF, Spain); Ngozi Okobi-Okeoghene (Eskilstuna FC, Sweden)
Forwards: Francisca Ordega (CSKA Moscow, Russia); Vivian Ikechukwu (WFC Gintra, Lithuania); Chinonyerem Macleans (GSK Gornik Leczna, Poland); Ifeoma Onumonu (NY/NJ Gotham FC, USA); Uchenna Kanu (Tigres Femenil, Mexico); Asisat Oshoala (FC Barcelona, Spain); Gift Monday (Bayelsa Queens)