By Akinwale Kasali
No one gave the Falconets a chance. After the team’s 1-0 loss to Germany in the opening match of the Group D encounter, soccer enthusisats had written them off.
The team bounced back in their second group game against Haiti, winning by Rasheedat Ajibade solitary spot kick in the first half of the encounter to signal the preparedness of the Falconets to make a mark in France.
Again, stand –in Captain Rasheedat Ajibade was the heroine as the Nigeria U20 girls weaved their way into the 9thFIFA U20 Women’s World Cup quarter finals following a 1-1 draw with their Chinese counterparts in Dinan/Léhon on Monday evening.
The Falconets’ top scorer in the African qualifying series tapped in at the near post in a last –gasp effort from a cross by Aishat Bello, to break Chinese hearts and shoot Africa’s most successful women’s football team at the World Cup level to their seventh berth in the knockout stages in nine editions of the FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup finals.
The Nigerians needed a draw to advance in second place alongside Group D leaders Germany and were lucky to progress after the last gasp strike.
Zhang Linyan gave China the breakthrough they needed with a 41st minute goal, and they were on their way to the last eight until Ajibade’s strike which ensured the Falconets finished Group D in second place on goals balance from the Asians, though on same number of points (four). Germany finished top of the pool with maximum nine points.
Nigeria thus advanced on four points; same as the Chinese but with a superior goals difference after losing their opening game to Germany 1-0 before a hard-fought 1-0 win over Haiti on Thursday.
But it was evident the Chinese were hard done by, not for lack of trying but for sheer luck, as the Asian girls wept profusely and uncontrollably in front of the 1,534 fans at the match venue.
The Falconets play Group C winners Spain, who played an entertaining 2-2 draw against USA in Dinan-Lehon same day, in Concaneau, on Thursday.
The draw ensured USA, most successful team of the competition alongside Germany with three titles, were eliminated from the competition for the first time in the group stage, while Japan joined the Spanish in the quarter-finals as Group C runners-up.
In other quarter-finals pairings, hosts France battle champions North Korea, England play Netherlands, while Japan slug it out against Germany, who reached the last eight on maximum points.
General Secretary of the Nigeria Football Federation, Dr. Mohammed Sanusi, praised the ladies for their effort: “The Falconets deserve commendation for the way they fought all the way to the end and got the important goal. The NFF is proud of their dedication, discipline and commitment, and we believe they have what it takes to overcome Spain in the quarter finals