Author: Chuka Onwumechili
The cultural challenges that women face in sports that have been designated as men domain has been enormous. While much has been written about these challenges particularly in Britain, extraordinarily little has been reported about similar challenges in places like Africa. I had always wondered about the absence of women in this sport and had naively thought that women must not have wanted to play football. But I was wrong. I had not sought to find out the answer until I stumbled upon it.
Stumbling on the answer was fortuitous, to state the least. At the time, my focus was to fill the gaps that I knew existed in the history of football, played by men, in Nigeria. The search took me to the United States Library of Congress in Washington, DC where Nigeria periodicals date as far back as the late 19th century. There, I began my examination of these periodicals to close the gaps in the history of men football in Nigeria. Then I stumbled on a curious Letter to the Editor in the West African Pilot of 1937. The letter strangely asked about women football and from its brief content it was clear that the writer has witnessed women football for some time, it was not clear how long he had witnessed women football, nor did it clearly state what level of football the writer witnessed. What was clear was that he must have witnessed it for some time for him to make the time to write a letter to the Editor to inquire whether it was okay for women to participate in the sport. Despite my stringent research to unearth an earlier date for the presence of women playing football in Nigeria, my attempts failed.
However, the 1937 date, despite the likelihood that the precise date for the start of women football in Nigeria is more likely to be prior, was enough. Today at least, Nigerian women have been playing football for a century! Yet, the Nigerian Football Federation did not recognize or support women football until barely 30 years ago. That means, that Nigerian women had been playing association football in the shadows for well over half a century.
My story here discusses the early years of women football in Nigeria, its struggles for years which include several milestones. One is the official ban imposed on women football in Nigeria by British colonial authorities and the women refusing to be cowed by this ban. Importantly, I also discuss the public revival of women football in the country later in the 20rth century with official moves by women clubs to form their own football association and league outside the auspices of the Football Association. In the final part of this essay, I discuss the official recognition of women’s football by the Football Association after the International Football Federation (FIFA) instituted a global competition for women footballers. The final part of this essay focuses on the state of women football in Nigeria because and despite the recognition by the Football Federation, the women continue to struggle in an environment in which their talent and participation continues to encounter severe hurdles.
1937 remains the first year that it became official that women played football in Nigeria. Subsequent reports immediately following 1937 involved women playing football but those games were for amusement. These were known as novelty games involving young ladies playing against middle aged men that were not considered athletically fit. The goal was to raise money from those events and several of them, which took place in the late thirties and early forties, were designed to raise funds for the World War II efforts involving Nigeria. Nigeria, being a British colony at the time, participated in not only providing men who served in the military during World War II but also raising funds in support of the war. The games involving young ladies against middle aged men was part of such fundraising.
But as the young ladies became involved in these events, it became clear that they developed a keen interest in sport and formed their own permanent teams. They no longer restricted their formal play to novelty games against middle aged men but began to arrange games against each other. These games were not just within a city. Given the likelihood that social disapproval was likely to have existed as we would learn throughout the years and even today, it meant that girls seriously involved in the sport were limited in number. This situation explains why some of the reported games between women teams had to involve traveling beyond city limits. The earliest reported such games occurred in 1944 and reported by the West African Pilot. The year 1944 is notable. It was during World War II. The women were widely needed for novelty games to raise funds for the war efforts of the Allied Forces. However, the West African Pilot of December 13, 1945, demonstrated that the use of novelty games between men and women were not the only avenue for women to play football. The 1945 report was of a fundraising game between Warri Ladies and Onitsha Ladies, which had taken place in 1944 in Warri. It is the earliest reported game between women teams in Nigeria. Warri Ladies played against Calabar Ladies in Warri in 1945 to raise funds in support of the Warri National College Fund. The report indicated that several of the ladies in the Calabar team had been playing for the team for a long while. These are indications that women teams may have been playing against each other, competitively, since at least the early 1940s. The West African Pilot reported games between Port Harcourt Ladies and Lagos Ladies. Traveling for such a game involved 400 miles by narrow road. That alone indicates that these women considered the games important to them!
The Period of the Colonial Ban
These games were increasing attracting the interest of Nigerian girls and the colonial administrators became concerned. Such games were banned in Britain at this time and, therefore, it would have been unusual to allow them in the British colony, Nigeria. The colonial government clamped down on such games. However, it was not an easy ban. The women were not playing under the auspices of the Football Association and, thus, did not compete for an Association trophy nor were the players registered with the Association. Yet, the colonial-controlled Association went on with a ban. How did it seek to do it?
Noting that the women used Association grounds for games, the FA sought to take those grounds away by making them unavailable with the hope that such action will deter the women. The FA, via their Nigerian affiliate, officially announced the ban of women participation in football and banning the use of its grounds for such games. It went further by threatening the locals with repercussions if found to support the games. The threat was harsh and severe. It included banning the country from participating in the Empire Games involving all British territories at the time and cherished by the locals.
The way the ban was reported by the major newspapers of the time indicated what they thought about it. The Daily Times, affiliated to the British colonial government, gleefully announced the ban headlining its sports page and dedicating half of a page. The Daily Times, prior to this report, had been virtually quiet in reporting the involvement of women in playing football. Yet and suddenly, it had the ban as a major sporting story of the day. In contrast, the anti-colonial West African Pilot which had reported regularly on women involving in football dating back to the 1937 story, place the ban story at the bottom of one of the sports pages and dedicated less space compared to the Daily Times. It was a sharp contrast that spoke volumes. The West African Pilot wrote: “The Football Association in England has forbidden the use of the grounds of its affiliated clubs and has ruled that no official of an affiliated club, nor a registered referee, may assist in the organization or playing of a match in which the players are females.”
They moved to local grounds, including schools, and wherever else they found space to play. Instead of the girls quitting the game, more girls joined. The game was popular among girls. The West African Pilot of September 21, 1954, notes: “One activity which girls in Delta Province especially in Sapele District share with equal enthusiasm with boys is football. This enthusiasm can be assessed by the large number of women and girls who watched the match between Sapele Girls’ Club and a team representing Anglican Girls’ School.” Thus, not only were women soccer clubs emerging in smaller cities such as Sapele and Warri but that schools were also forming girls’ teams.
Revival in the Shadows
However, the British ban on women football, was sustained even after Nigeria officially became politically independent from Britain in 1960. Thus, women football remained in the shadows. There continued to be sporadic media reports on women teams playing football, but most reports focused on novelty games designed to raise funds.
Although Britain was to lift the ban on women playing football in 1971, there was no similar action in Nigeria. Thus, the women continued to play football under the shadows. The first serious attempts of playing Cup games involving women and establishing a football association for women took place in the Nigerian Mid-west area, where women football was strong.
The Nigerian Observer of September 2, 1971, reported that six women clubs met in the then Mid-West state to form the Nigerian Council for Women Soccer (NCWS), it was the first organization to run competition for women football in the country. Notably, the communique issued at its foundation meeting including a plan to work with the Nigerian Football Association (NFA) and other sporting organizations. It also noted its goal to spread the game to other parts of the country and plans to organize an annual competition among its affiliated clubs. Mr. D. U. Edebiri was elected the Protem-Chairman of the Council and Mr. J. O. Ajayi was elected Protem-Secretary.
The bravery and the belief that the newly formed NCWS could work with the Nigerian FA was, of course, strengthened by the fact that women football had been recognized by Nigeria’s former colonialist – Britain. In a sense, the old idea about women bodies not being suitable to participate in football was increasingly questioned.
As promised by NCWS, the interest in women football began to blossom across much of Southern Nigeria. By 1978, the Nigerian Female Football Organizing Association (NIFFOA) was formed. All these developments were still outside the auspices of the Nigerian Football Association (NFA). The clubs that emerged during these early times included Jegede Babes, Larry’s Angel’s in Port Harcourt, and Ufuoma Babes which were managed by proprietors Princess Bola Jegede, Larry Eze, and Eddington Kujubola, respectively. Also, among the early clubs was Kakanfo Babes.
The participation of the Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria (YSFON) in the late 1970s was a major impetus, as well, in the development of women football in the country. YSFON focused on youth football in various age categories. They provided periodical training sessions, camps, and competitions particularly in the Southwest states of the country. Importantly, YSFON also periodically participated in international competitions such as the Dana Cup in Denmark and the World Girls Soccer Competition in Norway. Girls from other sports migrated to playing football as the latter’s popularity among women continued to spread. Top women footballers such as Mercy Akide and Ann Mukoro were former table tennis players; Chioma Ajunwa was a top track and field athlete who also played handball with Imo State Grasshoppers along with Rita Nwadike and Regina Akuronye. This was the sporting migration that was widely taking place at the time. The Grasshoppers handball team was particularly important. It was a club that was African women handball for several years at the time.
The challenge was instituting the first national competition for women. Mrs. Simbiat Abiola, wife of a wealthy Nigerian businessperson, Chief Moshood Abiola, became donor of the national Cup named the Alhaja Simbiat Abiola Cup in 1989. This competition was dominated early by teams from Imo and Delta states that benefitted by drafting athletes from other women sports dominated by those states. Five years later, another national Cup was donated by a business lady, Gina Yeseibo, for competition among U16 teams. Crucially, traditional rulers of different localities were persuaded to donated trophies for competition among girls and women in different localities. Thus, as Onwumechili writes, there was “. . . the Emir of Kano Cup in Kano, Obi of Onitsha Cup for competition in Enugu State, and the Olu of Warri Cup for competition in Warri.”
Finally, the Football Federation Steps In
These early developments, which encapsulated growth and development of talent pipeline at the youth levels was critical to installing Nigeria’s leadership in women football in Africa when the International Federation for International Football (FIFA) established the first global competition for women. FIFA’s decision was the impetus that finally woke up the Nigerian Football Association (NFA). Up until then, the NFA had ignored the development of women football all around the country. In fact, a year before the NFA stepped-in (1988), Walley, writing in the National Concord (November 27, p. 10) noted the rapid increase in the number of women football clubs in the country: “. . . Female soccer clubs can be found in no less than 13 states, mostly in the South. In North are Kano, Gongola, Plateau, and Kaduna.” She reported that most of the top games were attracting as many as 4,000 spectators each.
Finally in 1989, the NFA through its Assistant Secretary General, Mr. Patrick Okpomo, made a a disconcerting but notable announcement announcing the FA’s intention to step in. It was disconcerting because it failed to recognize the progress made by individuals and private organizations and instead deemed them illegal. It announced that all women clubs must register with the NFA and that only the FA could legitimately organize competitions for women. None of the existing proprietors contested this FA forceful decision.
The FA moved to build a national women team, which the media promptly named “The Amazons” to represent the country in FIFA’s new competition for women. The FA later officially changed the name of the national women team to the Falcons. Players were selected from existing women clubs at the time. In 1992, the FA introduced competition for a League Cup among women as well as an FA Cup.
….. But the Struggle Continues
While the Football Association’s take over brought a stamp of official approval to women football in Nigeria, there were new signs of resistance that began to emerge. Some remain today. One was that the game did not continue to spread to all parts of the country, and it could be argued that it receded in places where initial in-roads existed. The others remain religion, social expectations, and unequal treatment based on gender. Those problems are discussed separately in the following paragraphs.
Islam is the dominant religion in the North and Islamic interpretation in Northern Nigeria has prohibited women participation in the sport. Girls marry at a younger age and the dressing restrictions hinder participation. However, it is notable that the sport is played by a considerable number of girls in North Africa where the same religion is the predominant practice. However, Islamic religion has been a major hindrance in Nigeria to women participation in Nigeria. Early in-roads, which saw the establishment of clubs in Kano and some other Northern states, have receded. The Northern Queens FC of Kano is now defunct. Although, it must be stated that the Northern Queens had been, at its early years, made up of Christian girls who resided in the city and the club went defunct when it no longer was supported by the State. The Emir of Kano Cup is no longer played. The Federal Capital City (FCT) Queens, established in Abuja, the national capital city, was starved of funds and defunct when an administrator advised the players to focus on finding spouses instead of playing football. Beyond religious reasons, there remain social hindrances even in the Southern part of the country. Some of these social hindrances were outlined by Onwumechili that include expectations of the girl-child to help with domestic work at home as well as fears that football could affect the ability to bear children in the future. The consequence is that a large swath of girl population in Nigeria do not participate in the sport for religious and social reasons.
More dangerous for the female footballer in Nigeria are social charges of homosexuality. While these charges are like those made in other locations, in Nigeria such charges can be a matter of life and death for those charged. Why? Convictions of homosexuality in Nigeria officially carry a death sentence. In May 2021, BBC reported that half of the 69 countries where homosexuality is illegal are in Africa and Nigeria is one of those countries. Nigeria is one of 13 countries where there is a death penalty for homosexuality. Fortunately, at the time of this writing, no female footballer in the country, present or former, has been convicted of homosexuality. Yet, rumors persist in the media and the Football Association officials and coaches have made pronouncements alluding to female footballers being lesbians without concern for their safety. Surprisingly, it is surprising that in a country where several such allegations have been made against female footballers, not one has yet to be made against a male footballer.
There is also the unequal treatment of female footballers in other areas, including pay and other welfare matters. Pay is an ongoing issue as the female footballers are grossly underpaid compared to male teams given that much of the payment come from the state and not commercial funds. Until recently, even the youth male team players were paid more than the senior female team players. The women have traditionally reacted to this with public protests, some designed to embarrass the country. These tactical decisions to embarrass the country have been successful as they often lead to prompt payment by the Football Association. But the Football Association has often reacted by targeting individual players and coaches for retribution that includes exclusion from future invitations to join the team or stripping the person of positions. Beyond pay issues are other welfare matters. On one occasion, the bus transporting the female national team was taken away from them during training camp and put in service of the male team that was also in training camp at the same time. The females were left to secure their own transportation to training in cars and on motorbikes of well-wishers. The national team players are regularly camped in lower standard hotels compared to their male counterparts and at the local club level, multiple players are cramped together in small bedrooms.
Other Important Contributions of Women to Nigeria’s Football
Clearly, women participation in Nigeria’s most popular sport has come a long way from rejection, muted participation, and neglect to its. current struggle for a semblance of equality and respect. What is forgotten is that women participation in the sport is not restricted to playing on the field. There are other landmarks that ladies have made in the sport. These are club management, match officiating, coaching, among other roles. Each of those is worth discussion.
One of the earliest visible women in club management was Julie Alale, fondly known as “Madam Rangers” to denote her relationship with Nigeria’s most decorated football club in the 1970s. Julie Alale was a key supporter and administrator with Enugu Rangers International FC during that decade and her visibility during that period was a precursor for the prominence of other women in club and overall management of football across the country in the later decades.
Nigeria has served as a leader in providing women with access in officiating football matches involving men footballers at the highest level for decades. In fact, some of the most celebrated referees in Nigeria’s Premier League and the FA Cup have been women. Notably, the first woman to serve as the center official for the country’s FA Cup final was Mrs. Bola Abidoye in 2004. Jamila Buhari, however, was the first woman to referee in a major football game in Nigeria. In her story, she reported how she was slapped by a spectator who questioned why a woman should be refereeing a men’s football match in Kano. As far back as August 15, 1971; the Nigerian Observer (p. 14) reported the Benin Referees’ Association (BFA) agreeing to become the first such association in Nigeria to admit women as referees for men’s games.