Ahead of the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the exclusion of Okobi-Okeoghene from the Falcons squad has generated controversy, while the team’s preparations call for concern, writes ’TANA AIYEJINA

Super Falcons preparations for the 2023 Women’s World Cup were already marred by a last minute cancellation of camping in Abuja – earlier billed to begin June 20 – by the Nigeria Football Federation.

Following the decision, the team, who are pitted alongside co-hosts Australia Ireland and Canada in Group B, now have barely 10 days to prepare before their first game against Canada July 21 in Melbourne, since they’ll fly to Australia July 2 to begin preparations.

The team’s American coach Randy Waldrum released his 23-woman squad penultimate Friday, with familiar faces captain Onome Ebi, Asisat Oshoala, Rasheedat Ajibade, Francisca Ordega, Michelle Alozie, Chiamaka Nnadozie, Halimatu Ayinde and others on the list for the trip to the Oceania.

There were also exclusions. Forward Vera Ihezuo, Spain-based Charity Adule and midfielder Regina Otu were left out. Veteran midfielder Rita Chikwelu is also out after reportedly calling it quits with international football.

But the glaring absentee was Spain-based Ngozi Okobi-Okeoghene, the mercurial midfielder, who’s been the team’s creative spark in the middle in recent years.

Okobi-Okeoghene’s sheer individual brilliance handed the team the World Cup ticket at last year’s WAFCON quarter-finals, when she waltzed through a sea of Cameroonian legs before setting up striker Rasheedat Ajibade for the winner, which ensured the former African champions booked their place in Australia and New Zealand.

Expectedly, the country’s football-crazy populace kicked following her exclusion.

Fans sought to know why one of the team’s shining lights was excluded from the World Cup party.

“Okobi-Okeoghene’s exclusion is shocking because she contributes so much from the midfield,” Silverbird TV sports presenter Blessing Nwosu stated.

Our correspondent learnt that Okobi-Okeoghene, rather than return to Nigeria for the off-season, joined her former club in Sweden Eskilstuna United to train for the World Cup and also follow the programme drawn out by Waldrum.

She insists she is in fine shape, amid claims she was dropped because of an injury.

“They said I am injured, how am I injured? I have been training and following the (World Cup) programme,” Okobi-Okeoghene told The PUNCH.

However, there are feelers that she may have been a ‘victim’ of the power play in the Falcons camp.

It was learnt that NFF had insisted that Waldrum included at least one home-based player in his World Cup squad, with a federation official telling The PUNCH that Falconets goalkeeper at last year’s U-20 Women’s World Cup Omini Oyono was recommended to the coach.

Federation officials were also alleged to have vowed that if the coach didn’t pick the player, they won’t allow Waldrum’s American assistant join up with the team for the mission Down Under.

If Oyono was picked, it meant US-based third choice keeper Yewande Balogun, who is reportedly favoured by Waldrum, would have to give way.

The PUNCH exclusively learnt that the coach then sent his list to the federation, which included four keepers – Oyono, first choice Chiamaka Nnadozie, Tochuckwu Oluchi and Balogun, but it was rejected because it had four keepers instead of three.

In the list, captain Onome Ebi and midfielder Deborah Abiodun were listed as the two home-based players, featuring for Abia Angels  and Rivers Angels respectively, in the Nigeria Women’s Football League.

But our findings show that the 40-year-old Ebi, who will be making a record sixth appearance at the World Cup, didn’t play a single game for the NWFL side before the conclusion of last season, after she was released by Spanish side Levante Las Planas in January, following an unimpressive stint that saw her play just once in four months for the club.

Also, our correspondent gathered that Abiodun signed for Pittsburgh’s Panthers, Waldrum’s university team in the US, last November.

After Waldrum, according to our source, insisted on not sacrificing Balogun for Oyono, who was eventually dropped. Abiodun was picked as the ‘home-based’ star for the trip to Australia.

“This meant another midfielder had to give way and it was Okobi that was dropped,” an insider said.

Reacting to Okobi-Okeoghene’s exclusion, Waldrum, in an interview with The PUNCH, insisted that he picked the best legs for the World Cup.

“Without talking about who I picked and who I didn’t pick, I think it is fair to say we picked a group that we thought would give us a chance to win and when you have to pick just 23 players, it means some players will just have to be left off,” Waldrum said.

But Abiodun, it was learnt, didn’t play competitive football throughout last season because she couldn’t join her new American team due to paper work.

However, Waldrum said she deserved her place in the team.

“Deborah Abiodun has been around in the last few camps and she had a good World Cup with the U-20 team, she is a very good young player. She is going to be a very good player for the Falcons for a very long time.”

Waldrum was also accused of preferential treatment for the US-born players in the squad, while leaving out exciting local talents from his squad.

A source told our correspondent that US-based duo Iffy Onumonu and Jennifer Echegini have injury issues but the coach picked them for the World Cup.

“I don’t know where the claim of favouring the America-based players came from, but that is not an issue to me,” Waldrum told The PUNCH.

“They always feel that I don’t use local players and I will certainly tell you that since I’ve taken over, looking at players in the team that have been regulars, Demehin Tosin was a local, Rofiat Imuran was a local, Glory Ogbonna was a local when I found her, Akudo Ogbonna has also been in many camps, she’s local. Monday Gift was local too.

“So, people don’t investigate enough. We’ve had over 32 local players alone in camps, since I’ve been with the team. And obviously you just want the best players for the World Cup.”

While other countries are already finalising preparations for the tournament, the NFF has had to cancel a proposed three-week camping in Abuja, with the 23-woman Falcons now to fly straight to Australia July 2 to begin preparations.

Meanwhile, Falcons Group B opponents Ireland began preparations June 12 with a 27-woman squad and beat Zambia 3-2 in a pre-World Cup clash on Thursday.

The Irish will face France next month, before going to Australia, where a behind closed doors friendly with Colombia has also been lined up before their opening game of the tournament against Australia.

Using periodisation, the Irish training camp schedule factored in when players finished their respective club seasons, the loads that they can and need to take on, plus the recovery times and routines that they require.

This is to ensure that the Girls in Green will be in line with each other when entering the final stage of preparation in a safe way. This, the Irish authorities said, would be achieved through the use of STATSports technology monitored closely by the team’s sport scientist and technical staff.

Also, South Africa, who play Sweden, Argentina and Italy in Group G, have entered their final leg of preparations, with coach Desiree Ellis naming her final 23-woman travelling squad on Friday.

The African champions have been in camp since June 12 with a preliminary team of 36 players.

Nigeria’s inability to kickstart their final preparations on time may affect their chances at the tournament proper, says Nwosu.

“I don’t think anything will change,” Nwosu said.

“The girls have been around following the conclusion of the season, why didn’t they bring them together early enough?”

Women’s football enthusiast Dapo Sotiminu, however, believes the squad’s preparations are in the right direction.

He said, “From how they prepared in the past, I think the NFF has done well this time in terms of preparations, building up camps abroad and playing friendly games. They have also ensured that the players get to the World Cup early enough, so they can start another round of preparations.”

But despite the controversy his list has generated and the hitch in preparations, Waldrum is confident of a fine outing by his side in Australia and New Zealand.

“I like the squad we’ve put together and the last few camps we’ve had, they’ve been coming around. My only concern is not having the time to camp in Nigeria for three weeks.

“But I love the group and they are going to represent Nigeria very well.”

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