It is hard to catch Nigeria striker Francisca Ordega without a smile, but when she talks about expectations for the Super Falcons going into the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, that smile recedes into seriousness.
Since breaking into the top eight in 1999, Nigeria has not made it out of the group phase of the World Cup in the four attempts since.
Given the Super Falcons are by far the most dominant women’s side on the continent, amassing the Africa Women Cup of Nations title on repeat, such a poor showing on the global stage is a frustration for Ordega, and the team’s fans.
It is a hoodoo that Ordega says could be broken this time, telling ESPN: “I believe they had quality players [in 1999], and now we also have a solid forward line, with the likes of Asisat [Oshoala], Desire [Oparanozie], myself. Our midfield is solid too, and also young.
“I think it will be different this time. We have a lot of experienced players, we also have a lot of young players too.”
Ordega also reckons the side has more international experience to call upon than ever before, with herself a former Washington Spirit player for four seasons and now based in China, and Barcelona’s Oshoala a veteran of European leagues.
Ordega adds: “We have a lot of foreign-based players. I think we just have three or four home-based players in the team. So, if everyone could just bring in their experience and what they have learnt collectively from their club sides abroad, I think together we will be able to make a difference.”
To make that difference, quality alone will not be enough, and Ordega admits it, especially with the way previous iterations of the team have fallen to opposition they could have stood up to.
She says, referring to Swedish coach Thomas Dennerby: “It’s a mentality thing, and maybe now that we also have a foreign coach, that might change a bit.
“The NFF have tried to do something that is right for us for the first time ever. We have good friendly matches, great hotels, and early preparations. All of that will help us do better.
“The intensity is different. The way everybody looks, everybody looks fit and it’s just different, I think. It’s hard to describe but I think it’s very different this time.
“Maybe we had been staying in rubbish hotels or whatever, but this time they kind of gave us what we wanted. I’m not talking about money or financial issues but attention. They tried, it is better, so I think it will motivate us as well.”
Does that mean the team will have no excuse not to do well? The smile breaks out again, as she paraphrases biblical verse Luke 12:48.
“However much is given, much is expected, so I think they are expecting more from us now. We also want to do more, based on our experience and our position,” she says.
One of the biggest criticisms of the Super Falcons has been that they conquer Africa with ease, and then crumble when presented with non-continental opposition.
Ordega responds: “Well, that is true. But the coaching crew are really impacting us with different types of playing systems.
“Everybody knows us with one system, but I think they are trying to bring in something different from what people know us for, so I think that will help as well. This will not be the Falcons that people know.
“The freedom in the team, the love, the unity and everything, it is different this time, I believe this will help us go past the group stage level.”
Grouped alongside host nation France, who are one of the favourites for the title, and Norway and South Korea, it presents a formidable challenge for the African champions, one the former Sydney FC striker believes Nigeria is ready to embrace.
She continues: “We all like challenges. I can remember 2011, Germany was the best team in the world then, we played a friendly game with them and they thrashed us 9-1 but we came back and got stronger.
“We were happy to be in the same group with them at the World Cup, and we played our best to try to make sure we didn’t lose against them.
“We tried but unfortunately they won… but they only won 1-0 and it was a dying minute goal, and that was our best performance at that World Cup. So, everything is possible.
“France is one of the best now but that doesn’t mean we can’t beat them, anything can happen in football. Who would have thought the likes of Brazil, Germany and Spain would be out early at the last World Cup?
“So, everything is possible if we put our minds there. If you are ready for this and you take challenges upon yourself, I think sometimes it helps a lot.
“If we can tackle things like mental input, our clarity, even though we lack some tactics, anything can happen. We can beat them.”
Personally, the forward is looking to improve on her previous performances with the Super Falcons by bagging more than the one goal she got in Canada four years ago.
Her first opportunity for a goal will come against Norway on Saturday, followed by South Korea on Wednesday and France on the 17th.
“I just want to do better, I want to help my team as much as I can. The last time I scored one goal. Not everybody gets to the World Cup and scores. I scored in the last one. This time I’m expecting something different,” she says, smiling again.