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World Cup: Rasheedat Ajibade is Nigeria's blue-haired future

Janek Speight Brisbane
August 9, 2023

Nigeria have been a powerhouse in Africa for decades, winning 11 of 14 WAFCON titles. They're now setting their sights on international success and forward Rasheedat Ajibade is one star leading the charge for change.

FIFA Frauen Fußball WM Nigeria vs Australien
Image: Isabel Infantes/Shutterstock/IMAGO

One of the first things you notice at any Nigerian training session is a bright blue crop in a sea of green. The short-cut hair of Rasheedat Ajibade sticks out immediately but it's the feet that keep you entranced.

The ball simply belongs on these two feet, it has no other choice. It's been like that for quite some time.

Ajibade, known as Rash, is only 23 but has already played in two World Cups and won the Africa Cup of Nations. She's part of a talented crop of Nigeria internationals who are brimming with confidence about their ability to climb football's world order.

On top of that, Rash has built a personal brand that uses her platform as a footballer to instigate social change. And her trademark blue hair is just one part of a unique personality that helps her stand out on her personal journey.

"You have to have an identity, you have to stand out in the midst of all the crowds," she tells DW.

"I was going through a mental breakdown and I felt I had to do something extremely different, something crazy. That's one of the things that spurred me on to [dye my hair]."

Rash has collected hundreds of thousands of followers on social media and is capitalizing on that popularity to promote initiatives into boosting education, coaching and grassroots football within her home country.

"Honestly, it's not easy to be Nigerian," she says.

"But as an African child, I grew up with a very strong mentality. I grew up in a do-or-die environment, where it's survival of the fittest."

It's a mentality that's not only spurred on her own professional career in football but is also inspiring the next generation of Nigerian girls to pursue their dreams.

Rasheedat Ajibade in action for Nigeria ta the Women's World Cup
'Honestly, it's not easy to be Nigerian' — Ajibade Image: George Hitchens/Zuma/IMAGO

Family support fuels football ambitions

Rash grew up in a family of five children with four girls and one boy, who were all encouraged to follow their passions in a sporting family.

"My dad, he loves boxing. He didn't want me to play football, he wanted me to box," Rash says.

"And my mum's very open to her children's talents. So I didn't have any problems with my parents."

In Nigeria, however, Rash's situation isn't the norm, which is why she is now focused on setting up programmes to help girls find opportunities at a grassroots level.

She knows herself how hard it can be to make it as a professional, having grown up working side-jobs in order to financially support her ambitions.

"In the community, there are a lot of challenges," she explains. "You don't really see many young girls playing football because their parents don't want them to get injured.

"You're also in an environment that doesn't really give you the atmosphere to try because you don't have the basic facilities, like pitches or football gear. And you go to training and come back home and don't have food to eat. So you have to struggle."

Road to professionalism

Rash completed a bachelor in accounting at Lagos State Polytechnic before pursuing her dream of professional football overseas, signing a contract with Avaldsnes in the Norwegian top tier at the age of 19.

It wasn't a smooth transition.

"It was very cold, it was extremely different weather, and I didn't have my family around. 

"That was my first time leaving my family and going to a place I didn't know. The language is different, the food is different, the culture is different."

But her hard work was rewarded with a transfer to Atletico for the sunnier pitches of Madrid in 2021. Months out from the World Cup, Rash lifted the Copa de la Reina, her first major trophy.

"Even when things are not going in your direction, you just have to learn to adapt," she says.

"Mentally, Africans have been built that way. Because of my mental strength that I've built, from growing up in Nigeria, and all the things I've gone through, I was able to do that."

Rasheedat Ajibade celebrates winning the Spanish Cup with Atletico Madrid last season.
Ajibade won the Spanish Cup with Atletico Madrid last season.Image: Oscat Barroso/Zuma/IMAGO

Nigeria showcasing quality on world stage

That mentality flows through the entire Nigeria squad, which has had to put up with its fair share of drama. Coach Randy Waldrum was very vocal against the country's FA ahead of the 2023 World Cup, furious at a canceled training camp in Nigeria and uncertainty over player payments.

Funding for women's football is often neglected, despite the nation winning 11 of 14 Women's Africa Cup of Nations titles and qualifying for every single World Cup.

For the 2023 tournament, however, the players have admirably put aside the dispute and concentrated on producing results. A shock 3-2 win over co-hosts Australia, together with 0-0 draws against Canada and Ireland, sealed their passage into the knockouts.

"There are a lot of things going on right now behind the scenes but we just keep our focus. We have to stick together as a team and just give everything," Rash says. "I'm so proud and so are the team."

Their story came to an end in the quarter finals though as they fell just short of a real upset against England, the European champions.With stars such as herself, Asisat Oshoala, Toni Payne and Michelle Alozie though, Rash believes there's enough quality in the squad to build a foundation for the future.

Rasheedat Ajibade of Nigeria celebrates a goal at the Women's World Cup 2023.
Ajibade has struggled with her mental health in the past — now she's flying high with the Super Falcons. Image: James Whitehead/Sports Press Photo/IMAGO

Overcoming mental struggles 

The blue mop is blazing in the sun as Rash further explains why she decided to take on the eye-catching hair-do. She describes herself as "reserved" and feels this gives her power to stand out.

The catalyst was a battle with depression, which started when she was a teenager. It's part of the reason why she's so passionate about helping others overcome their challenges both mentally and professionally.

"As a player you have to take care of yourself, both on and off the field," she says.

"I'm grateful to God that he took me out of that episode and I'm fine now. It's not a bad thing to talk about, it's something that a lot of players go through and I feel like we all need psychological intervention at some stages in our life and our career."

It's worth repeating that this talented footballer is just 23 and is still combining her career with studies, fundraising and grassroots initiatives. All while living in a foreign country and fighting for equality in women's football.

It's no wonder she's proud of how far she's come.

"Every time I have the opportunity to play for my nation, it's a privilege that I will never take for granted,” she says. "I always feel honoured because we have millions of players out there that could potentially be on the team.

"I'm so grateful for the dedication and commitment I've put in so far to get me to this level."

Editor: Michael Da Silva

Janek Speight Sports reporter and editor