Desire Oparanozie spends a lot of time off the ground, as is only to be expected of one of the best headers of the ball at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2012.
And no matter how much the Nigeria attacker is buffeted by opposition defenders or how acrobatically she tries to reach the ball, she always manages to land on her feet.
She also manages to keep her feet firmly on the ground metaphorically, a useful trait when she has to deal with disappointment, such as in the recent quarter-final against Mexico.
“I missed a hatful of chances. I know I did, and I’m really annoyed with myself,” she said to FIFA.com. “I needed to score to know that all my hard work was actually worth something and that I’d contributed something to the team.
“At the end of the day if I’ve created a lot of chances for myself and we lose, I don’t feel like I’ve helped the team – the opposite in fact.”
Despite being her own harshest critic, the centre-forward certainly did help her team against Mexico.
Her extra-time goal, which as you would expect came from a header, sent the Falconets into the semi-finals, where they will take on USA, as well as repaying the faith shown in her by the rest of the Nigerian side.
“I felt under a certain amount of pressure, but it was of my own making – no-one else was putting any pressure on me,” said the striker, who grew up idolising local legend Mercy Akide and who now admires Abby Wambach and Wayne Rooney.
“When I missed those chances and when I made a few wrong decisions, the coach and my team-mates kept telling me to keep my chin up, to put it behind me and that the next chance would come along soon. When the ball finally went in, I could hardly believe it!
The goal was just reward for their encouragement because it got them into the semi-final.”
Where plenty of other forwards would have become impatient, Oparanozie maintained her focus and assumed her responsibilities.
“When you’ve got the experience of playing in the full international team, you have a duty not to get carried away and to help your team-mates to keep calm,” said Oparanozie, who represented her country at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup 2008, the U-20 equivalent in 2010 and at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011™.
“I never give up, and that’s an important aspect of my character,” she said of her never-say-die attitude against Mexico, even when it looked as if the Nigerians were on the way out.
“When you have an objective, you need to give it all you’ve got all the time, and never give up until you’ve achieved what you set out to do. That applies to football and to life in general.”
In the short term, Oparanozie’s main aim is to help her country put things right after their failure to reach this year’s Women’s Olympic Football Tournament. “People around the country expect a lot of us, particularly after what happened with the Olympic Tournament,” said the striker, who is also studying business and management to ensure that she has a career path to follow once she hangs up her boots.
“We didn’t even take part and the whole country was in mourning after that,” she continued. “I’m one of the players who has most to say and when things start looking difficult, I tell the others that we can’t afford to falter, that the time has come to make sacrifices.
“Not just for ourselves, but for our families and all the people who believe in us and whom we make happy whenever we win. We know that we can do it and we know that we have to do it.”
What they feel they “can and have to do” is bring the trophy home to Nigeria. Oparanozie was part of the team that came so close to achieving that in 2010 and she believes that the near miss will help them enjoy more success in the future.
“I experienced the elation of making it through to the final in [Germany in] 2010, and I’m back now with the same objective in mind,” said the striker, whose transfer from Delta Queens to Turkish club Duvenciler Lisesi fell through in 2011, just when she was hoping to launch a new stage of her career in Europe.
“Getting through to the final showed me where I’m at and the minimum that I can achieve. I didn’t come here this year with the mindset of not getting as far this time around.”
Oparanozie continues to fly high and land on her feet. And on the rare occasions that she stumbles, she picks herself up again straight away. “I want to play in the final again,” she concluded with conviction. “But this year I don’t want to come off second-best.”