The recent FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup was in one respect a major success story for Africa. Nigeria, after all, reached the final – scoring 15 times en route – and only narrowly missed out on the trophy after outplaying Germany in the decider.
But while Fran Hilton-Smith a member of the FIFA task force on women soccer viewed with approval the Super Falconets’ campaign, her admiration was tinged with frustration. As a long-time champion of women’s football in Africa, she knows the continent’s potential better than anyone and viewed Canada 2014 not as a heroic over-achievement, but as a tale of what might have been.
“The fact Nigeria achieved what they did showed again that African players have tremendous skill and ability,” said Hilton-Smith, technical director at the South African Football Association (SAFA) and a member of the organising committee at Canada 2014. “But if they were able to compete as often as their European counterparts do, you’d see even more.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that if African teams had consistency in playing matches and consistency in coaches, you’d have African world champions. Look at Nigeria in Canada. They were very unlucky not to beat Germany, and that’s with all the many advantages the Germans have in organisation, training and playing regularly as a team and the professional league they have there. If we could start to bridge those gaps, the potential for Africa is just amazing.
“At the moment though, African teams just don’t play enough. It’s our major drawback and, for me, it’s the thing that’s preventing us from taking that final step towards winning these kind of tournaments. With South Africa, we try to arrange friendlies within Africa and it’s impossible because the bulk of the countries don’t put their teams together until a competition is on the horizon. That’s when they quickly assemble the team, hire a coach, play one or two friendlies, hold a camp somewhere and that’s it. For the majority of year there’s nothing.”
Yet this is not a problem without a solution. Indeed, Hilton-Smith has been working tirelessly, both in her role at SAFA and with the African Football Confederation (CAF) to look at practical ways in which the continent’s teams can be developed and improved by more frequent, high-level competition.