Former U.S. youth international Toni Payne is revelling in playing in the green-and-white colours of Nigeria, and has set herself the lofty goals of winning major tournaments with the Super Falcons.
After making her international debut for Nigeria at the Turkish Women’s Cup in February, the Sevilla striker was impressed by her new teammates and told ESPN that the quality in the team had given her the confidence that the Falcons could accomplish great things at major tournaments.
“My ambitions in the squad would be to win some major tournaments like the World Cup and play in an Olympics and win an Africa Cup of Nations,” Payne, a Duke alum, said.
AFCON success might be the most likely, with the Super Falcons being record repeat champions at African level, but Payne is convinced the team can achieve the same results at a global level.
The Falcons have been past the World Cup group stages only twice, 20 years apart, and they have not progressed beyond the group stages at an Olympic Games since their first outing in 2000.
Nigeria won all three fixtures in Turkey earlier this year, rounding out their trophy-winning campaign with a 9-0 victory against Equatorial Guinea.
“Before that tournament, it had been quite a while since the girls had been together in a camp as a squad, and yet everyone seemed to be gelling quite quickly and coming together in a distinct style of play, and things were coming together quite smoothly,” Payne said.
“So, I think with the players that are in the team, and also the coaching staff, I think definitely the Falcons have a really strong potential to win major tournaments.”
Payne, whose parents are from Nigeria, is not new to winning titles. Born in the Alabama, she suited up for the the U.S. at youth level, helping them to win the 2012 CONCACAF Women’s Under-17 title, alongside current USWNT players Jane Campbell, Andi Sullivan, and Midge Purce.
With that under her belt, and after a spell at Ajax in Amsterdam, she decided in 2019 to switch her international allegiance to Nigeria; but it took two years to do so, due a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and getting her paperwork in order with FIFA.
Those developments cost her the chance to represent Nigeria at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, when the Super Falcons equalled their best performance from 1999 in making the Round of 16.
Payne said: “I was obviously disappointed, but realising that things happen for a reason and when it’s the right time then the things will fall into place.
“So, I knew hopefully at some point I’ll have my opportunity and when I have it I’m going to make the most of it. So, it was unfortunate to miss out but I was still supporting the team from home and just waiting for my next opportunity.”
That opportunity presented itself in February, when, with her paperwork completed, new coach Randy Waldrum included her in the squad to play in Turkey. Payne made an immediate impression as Waldrum handed her a surprise start in the first game against CSKA Moscow.
“It was a very exciting and pleasant surprise. I told my family and friends, and everyone was really happy for me,” she said.
“I was also surprised when I was on the starting list. Players were just coming into camp and had the first match after [minimal] training, and I think Randy had to make those [snap] decisions.”
If Payne proved herself capable in that first game, the second against Uzbekistan was even better and she really came into her own in the third fixture against Equatorial Guinea.
Payne, playing in a less-than-familiar position, first set up Uchenna Kalu and then scored a spectacular individual goal of her own, running through three defenders to hit an unstoppable effort as the Super Falcons ran out 9-0 winners.
“I think my initial thoughts were just to try and break some pressure and when I saw that I was in front of the goal, I decided to take the shot and it’s good that it went in.
“But, yeah, it was nice…” was Payne’s subdued response to questions about a rather sensational strike.
Payne’s transition from U.S. junior international to senior Nigeria international may not have been straightforward, but, in hindsight, it seems like it was always going to be a natural progression. Her father, Oyeleke Payne, has always been a big fan of Nigerian football and got his children involved from an early age.
“I have always been a lover of Nigerian football,” Oyeleke told ESPN.
“I loved those games between IICC Shooting Stars and Rangers. I also do some coaching of my own, and I have some players I coached who are now playing pro.
“I am a lucky guy. God blessed me with a knowledge of the game but I just wanted to be a father kicking a ball with his kids. When I saw that they loved the game, all I wanted to do was push them to be the best they could be.
“My kids grew up in the early 90s watching the Super Eagles, the likes of Austin Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu and the rest, and the way they play.
“But of all my three kids, the one [who] truly loves soccer, Nigerian style, is Toni. She was always really engaged in it.”
Payne said the opportunity to play for Nigeria was not just an honour but inevitable: “It means everything to me that I’m able to represent Nigeria.
“It’s always felt quite natural to me, honestly. Having the opportunity to represent my parents and the family that I have in Nigeria is an amazing feeling, and I’m really honoured to be able to have this opportunity.
“I’ve obviously played in a lot of youth programs in the U.S. national team for many years but I’ve always watched Nigeria, whether it was the men’s team or the women’s team, and I always had a sense of pride and support for the Nigerian side.
“So once Nigeria gave me the opportunity, I knew that that was the right decision and the right move, and I was honestly just really honoured and I’m really excited. I’m hoping that I will continue and be a good addition to the team.
“I was grateful to have had the opportunity to play in the U.S. program, and I learned a lot from the program, but playing with Nigeria is just something that feels a little bit more natural and more right for me and for my future career.”
Oyeleke is as proud as can be: “For her to get the opportunity to wear Nigeria colors is a joy to me.
“I have always told my kids to consider everything they do as service. So whether it is playing for Nigeria or the U.S., use those lessons to impact in life.”
But for the immediate future, Payne is more focused on the short-term objectives of keeping her place in a stacked Nigeria team.
“The bigger challenge was playing in new position,” she said.
“For many years I normally play as a winger so it was a little bit of an adjustment period; but I really enjoyed it. My goals are to just improve, keep getting better at the position, and hope to make an impact.”