Asisat Oshoala sliced off yet another piece of history for herself when she won the 2021 Uefa Women’s Champions League with FC Barcelona Femeni.
Since turning professional in 2013, the 26-year-old Nigerian has amassed an honours roll that includes, along with trophies for club and country, a number of firsts. In 2015, she became the first African woman to play in England’s Women’s Super League (WSL) when she joined Liverpool as a result of her outstanding performance at the 2014 Fifa Under-20 Women’s World Cup.
In 2020, she equalled compatriot Perpetua Nkwocha’s record of four Africa Women’s Footballer of the Year awards. And that came after Oshoala in 2019 became the first African woman to play and score in the final of the European Champions League. She is also the first African woman to win the competition, and has won silverware on three different continents over the course of her career so far.
The most remarkable thing for this woman of many records is the fact that it could all have been so different. “To be honest, I had no intention of playing football professionally,” she says.
“As a young girl, the thought of taking it beyond the streets didn’t cross my mind at that stage. It was all just fun and vibes for me, to be honest. Football was an escape – with it comes the freedom to express myself and it was something I enjoyed back then.”
Oshoala grew up in the Lagos suburb of Ikorodu, where she faced opposition at home as her parents frowned on her athletic pursuits. Her schoolmates laughed at her decision to play the beautiful game, teasing her about it and saying she was wasting her time. She would sneak out of her home on Sundays to play with her friends, driven not only by personal gratification but also the desire to prove her doubters wrong.
Such was the strength of conviction directed at her over her desire to play football that when Rivers Angels FC signed her in 2013, her initial feeling was one of relief.
“I had a lot of doubts at some point,” she admits. “Like, what if it doesn’t work out? So, when the opportunity came to go to the southern city of Port-Harcourt and play for Rivers Angels, I was so happy I was going to leave Lagos. I could be alone, play at any time I wanted to. I gave myself an assignment then. I said, ‘They’re giving me this opportunity to play, I’m going to make sure I don’t misuse it. I’m going to make sure I utilise this opportunity and make something out of it.’”
It was a decision that marked a turning point in her career. A year later, she starred for Nigeria’s team that went all the way to the final of the Fifa Under-20 World Cup in Canada. Germany scored an extra-time winner to claim the trophy, but Oshoala’s seven goals were unmatched in the tournament. It was a performance that won her not only universal acclaim, but also the approval of two important people.
“My parents started supporting my career after the Under-20 World Cup. I won the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball in the tournament. At that point in time, they actually turned around and said, ‘Okay, we think this is your line. We’re going to support you to any point you want to get to in football, but make sure you keep a good name and you use this opportunity very well.’”
The timing of Oshoala’s breakthrough was opportune. She had come to an understanding with her parents that if she had not found a measure of success by the age of 20, she would leave football behind and study law.
Since her move to Liverpool in 2015, Oshoala has established herself as one of Africa’s most influential and decorated footballers.
A short-lived spell with Arsenal brought an FA Cup triumph in 2016 before she moved to Chinese side Dalian Quanjian. She finished as the top scorer in the Chinese Women’s Super League in 2017, with 12 goals to help her club to the title. Her return to Europe in January 2019 saw her link up with Barcelona and coincided with the club’s first league title in five years, as well as the establishment of FC Barcelona Femeni as a major player in Uefa competition.
The club reached the final of the 2019 Champions League, but fell 4-1 to French club Olympique Lyonnais. The sad outcome for Barcelona Femeni was brightened somewhat by Oshoala’s historic goal, as she came off the bench to become the first African woman to score in a European Champions League final.
“I found out on Twitter,” she says. “I mean, to be honest, I have little or no knowledge when it comes to women’s football history, especially in Africa. A lot of people were congratulating me, they were saying ‘first to ever do it’. It was then I started reading through some tweets and I was like, ‘Oof, double celebration!’”
It might seem incongruous, a player celebrating a personal achievement in such a heavy team defeat. But knowing the road she has travelled and the heightened focus on her as an icon of African football, Oshoala is “proud” of what she has been able to achieve. And Barcelona would go one better two years later, beating English club Chelsea in the final.
“I came from nothing to something. So, I’m proud of myself and of everyone who has been supporting me through, from my parents to my friends to my family and everyone around me.
“I try to make sure I go out there to represent the whole of Africa each time I step my feet on the pitch. I have a burden on my back, which is actually not a [source of] pressure for me, though. So being the first African to win the Uefa Women’s Champions League … feels good to be up there, to have people look up to me. It feels good to have this record in my name, to have all these medals in my name. I feel really happy and excited and delighted about this.”
Football for girls
The challenges Oshoala faced while coming up in the game motivated her to set up a girls’ football foundation in Lagos in 2019. “The men get a lot of opportunities. They play a lot of friendly games, a lot of local tournaments. You see a lot of agents fly to Nigeria to come watch the male players, taking them abroad and everything. I feel like the women lack these things, they don’t really get that.
“The girls don’t get these opportunities, which is why I actually decided to set up a foundation to give them the opportunity to play football and interact with other female players, including myself.
“I love to tell my story because a lot of girls are struggling out there. If one of them is trying to emulate me, it’s a good thing because I feel like I’ve laid a very good example. But what I would really love is for someone to come out and say, ‘I want to beat Asisat Oshoala’s records.’ That’s the spirit, that’s what makes a great player.
“Most times, young girls with the talent to pursue a football path are prevented from doing so. They’re verbally and mentally insulted, oftentimes forced to drop the idea of sport as a possible career. But if I can inspire someone to ignore the bad noise and negative comments, follow the paths they desire and chase their dreams, that’s a big win for this foundation.”
Oshoala has revealed that her desire post-career is to be devoted to this pursuit. However, even while she is still playing, she is committed to pushing for greater support for the women’s game on the continent.
Nigeria is by far Africa’s most successful national team, and it would be easy to sit back and bask in that success. But Oshoala, while acknowledging that the state of affairs on the continent has improved recently, says more can and should be done.
“I feel like they [the Confederation of African Football (CAF)] are trying to do some things now, trying to improve, trying to get better now. But this should have started years back. CAF can do a lot more, as can the media, in recognising women’s football and giving it the best chance of growing.
“For instance, these 2022 qualifying games [for the Africa Women’s Cup of Nations (Awcon)], imagine having Nigeria and Ghana in the same group. You want to televise these games, and you’re bringing two top teams in Africa to play against each other in the qualifying round.
“I just feel it’s not good for the face of the game. Because at the end of the day, you don’t want to televise a game [at Awcon] where some teams will be winning 8-0, 5-0, 4-0 or whatever. You want to televise competitive football that can keep people on their toes while they’re watching, keep them more interested. Not a game where people watch and it’s one-sided.”
With the right environment and competent administration, Oshoala says, African women’s football has the potential to compete on an equal footing with the rest of the world.
“There’s what you call talent,” she explains. “We have great names in Africa. We have the likes of Thembi [Kgatlana], Elizabeth Addo. A lot of great players come out of Africa. Honestly, if we had the opportunities these European teams have, how they play friendly games back-to-back, how they go to camp during Fifa dates, I promise you would definitely see an African team getting to the final of the World Cup.
“I see my fellow players in Europe and I’m always like, ‘I’m proud of these girls.’ Because we’ve got it, that natural gift. You can have a gift, but if you don’t capitalise on it, then other people step in front of you, and I think that’s what’s going on.
“African players are achieving success in European leagues, dominating in the competitive Chinese league and elsewhere. It shows that the talent is in Africa. Now imagine the height we can attain if those in charge of football across the continent can put in more support, improve facilities, treat the game right and ensure the women are treated like the true professionals that they are.”