The national team are ready for the Women's World Cup but footballers in Nigeria still face a battle for recognition, both financially and at home. New sponsorships and changes to the domestic league offer hope.
"Every day they just keep reminding me that I'm going to end up in a man's house," says Monday Gift.
Playing football to the highest professional level has always been her dream but, like many other African families, the thought was not welcomed, especially coming from a woman. In most cases, women are expected to go to school, get a job and get married.
"I agreed to go to school for them and play football for me," she added.
None of her family members ever came to watch her play until she competed at a big regional sporting event in 2012, a day she'll never forget. Gift recalls the joy she felt as her name was announced as the competition's top scorer and most valuable player (MVP).
This was her chance to finally prove to her parents that there was a future for her in football. But it didn't quite work out like that. Even after playing for the national team at the FIFA under-20 World Cup, her parents are still not fully convinced. Her mother still reminds her that her ultimate achievement would be to get married. For now, she plays for one of the most popular female clubs in Nigeria – FC Robo.
Financial rewards only found overseas
The club was founded by former professional footballer Emmanuel Osahon Orobosa in 1999 as a men's football club. Orobosa eventually expanded it to include a women's side.
"People believe the place for the woman is in the kitchen, they don't believe they can make something out of life through sports. But for me, it's a different ball game entirely," said Osahon Orobosa.
The club also serves as an academy where players are trained from a very young age. Orobosa cannot count exactly how many women he has trained since the inception of FC Robo, but as of today, the club currently has 150 male and female players.
Orobosa funds the male and female clubs by himself. He says because of the financial constraints he faces as a private club owner in Nigeria, his girls have to train twice as hard to shine in the women's Premier League and hopefully be noticed and signed by a foreign team.
"The only way they can make money is when they go abroad. That's why we train a lot," Orobosa said.
This year some of his players made it to the national team and will be representing Nigeria at the Women's World Cup in France.
Many of the home-based national team players were selected because of their outstanding performance at local league level. But even the leagues are struggling financially. Female football in Nigeria still struggles to attract the attention of sponsors, investors and even spectators.
The League system and intervention
The 16-team Nigeria Women's Premier League is the country's top division. The teams are divided into two groups of eight and must play seven home and seven away matches. After the season, the two worst performing clubs are relegated to the Nigeria Women's Pro-League.
Nigeria played Germany in the 2011 World Cup group stage
Many previous campaigns have been interrupted because most clubs could not afford to pay for the expenses that came with participation.
"We do not have anybody that is supporting in any way financially. So what we are able to generate internally is what we also put back into the league,” said Aisha Falode, chairperson of the Nigeria Womens Football League (NWFL).
In order to prevent teams from failing to honor their games, the NWFL decided to fund the teams themselves.
"We knew that we had to do something to get back the confidence, not only of the public but also of the clubs and of the players,” Falode said. "It means that you can have a season that is not truncated for any reason. It's a huge burden, but its a sacrifice we have to make on our part. Even though we do not have any investors in the game yet.”
For the last two years, the NWFL has been working to improve the visibility of female football in Nigeria. Among other things, they've created more competitions, increased the prize money for winners and are working on creating more international partnerships.
Sponsors coming on board
One of the most competitive events they created is a preseason tournament called ‘the Super 4'.
"That was a big turnaround for us, the first one was hugely successful. People now began to see that there was a women's league. The press now also began to follow it, such that we were commanding back page covers,” Falode said.
In spite of these efforts, convincing companies to sponsor the leagues or the clubs has been a daunting task. People don't seem to see female football as a serious investment just yet. None of the matches are broadcast on television and stadium attendance for matches is still very low.
"It's not demoralizing to us, but it's just asking us to keep doing what we are doing be consistent,” Falode said. "And once we are consistent and the people see that it's not a one-off thing, perhaps they will still come.”
Slowly but surely
This year, for the first time, the Nigeria women's team – the Super Falcons – got a major media sponsorship for a TV commercial titled "We've got balls” (see tweet above). The commercial features an all-female cast and crew. The German women's team released a similarly-themed campagin last month.
"We are proud to be associated with The Super Falcons and the winning spirit that has pushed them into becoming trailblazers for women's football in Africa and global football.” a representative of drinks company Amstel Malta told a local newspaper.
Despite the challenges, Nigeria's women team remains one of the best on the continent. Monday Gift did not receive a call-up for the World Cup, but still has her eyes fixed on the top. "I plan on playing on the highest level of football at the international stage,” Gift said.