BARCELONA, Spain — When Super Falcons striker Asisat Oshoala was a young girl growing up in Nigeria, her mum wouldn’t give her money for food if she had been playing football on the streets with the boys.
You can imagine, then, how she reacted when, at the age of 15, she found out her daughter was going to drop out of school in pursuit of a career in the game.
“I actually stopped going to school because at some point I had a lot of problems with my parents,” Oshoala told ESPN FC in May.
“They wanted me to go to school but I had the unique opportunity to play in another city for a professional team in Nigeria. I had to leave my city for another city which meant, automatically, I had to leave my school and stop.
“So I had to make that sacrifice at that time. I told my parents: ‘OK, I can always come back but this is an opportunity that I can’t turn down.’ Maybe it was a 50 percent chance to progress in football. So, I moved on my own. For me, it was about taking the opportunity at the right time and I did not regret it.”
A 50 percent chance of progressing in football is a ridiculously high chance for a teenage girl in Nigeria to give herself. There was no real precedent for Oshoala to follow, no homegrown hero in the women’s game, perhaps with the exception of Perpetua Nkwocha.
Instead, she drew her role models from the men’s game: Jay Jay Okocha — “he gave us hope when it came to football,” she said — and Nwankwo Kanu.
It’s hard to imagine, though, Oshoala as your average teenage girl. Now, aged 24, playing for Barcelona and preparing for the Women’s World Cup with Nigeria, you get a sense of her Cristiano Ronaldo-like high standards when she talks about the toughest times in her professional career to date.
“Sometimes you have difficult moments but you just have to go through them,” the forward said.
“Like the last African Cup [of Nations]: I didn’t score a lot of goals and I wasn’t in the best form but we were still able to win the trophy as a team. So I told myself, it’s not about me scoring goals, it’s about the team.”
Nigeria won the tournament and Oshoala, with three goals in five games (plus a penalty in the semifinal shootout win over Cameroon) was the second top scorer in the competition.
It’s those standards which have taken her around the world. After playing for FC Robo and Rivers Angels in her homeland, she moved to English side Liverpool in 2015. A year later she joined Arsenal, where she won the FA Cup, and in 2017 she headed to China, where she signed for Dalian Quanjian.
Earlier this year she joined Barcelona on loan, a move which was made permanent this month with a three-year contract after eight goals in 11 appearances.
In that same time period, she has been named African Women’s Footballer of the Year three times, has won the African Cup of Nations three times, played in the World Cup four years ago and was a runner-up at the U20 World Cup in 2014, a tournament which also saw her win the Golden Boot for top scorer and the Golden Ball for best player.
Last month, she became the first African to play in the Women’s Champions League final, too, when she scored the consolation goal in Barca’s 4-1 loss against European powerhouse Lyon. African journalist Gary Al-Smith says it’s fair to say she has achieved “role model” status back in Nigeria.
“It was big news when she signed for Barcelona,” he told ESPN FC. “She’s undoubtedly the most successful female footballer in Nigeria’s history, so she’s big. Her club and country achievements, together, surpass those of anyone before her.
“When I first covered the Africa Footballer of Year awards, many people simply didn’t recognise the female footballers — even if they were from the host nation.
“But with Asisat, I covered the awards when they were hosted in Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, and at all three events people stopped, called her by name and wanted photos. The other nominees from other countries barely got that recognition.”
Even with her self-confidence and steely determination, Oshoala couldn’t possibly have imagined quite so much attention and affection as she grew up in Lagos in in the early 2000s.
“I was always with my brothers and sisters. I played football with my older brother but he wasn’t that interested. For him, it was more about passing the time, but for me it was everything,” she said.
It still is everything for Oshoala. She spends a lot of her free time in her apartment around the corner from Barca’s out-of-city training ground watching whatever football is on television. Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez rank among her favourite players from the past season.
Suarez because she has the task of mirroring his role in Barca’s women’s side. She’s meticulous when it comes to details and doesn’t take any decision lightly. Before agreeing to move to Catalonia, she watched over 20 videos of old Barca games to see if she would fit into the side.
She’s now using her status back home to help young girls become involved in the sport. Through her self-named foundation, she offers advice and opportunities to the next generation of players, although she said the most important part of the project is educating the parents.
“I explain to them how important sport is for the girls,” she added. “I show them that it’s possible to play football and go to school at the same time. I tell them that you can play football and be a woman. It’s possible with respect and equality.”
Nigeria rank among the outsiders for the World Cup in France this month. Their resources don’t stretch as far as some of the bigger nations and they may even find it difficult to get out of a group which includes hosts France, Norway and South Korea.
But in Oshoala they have one of the game’s rising superstars and if her determination and belief rubs off on to her teammates you never know.
“It’s a big thing for me to play at the World Cup because I am just a young girl who had a dream to play football, not even professionally [at first],” she said.
“But along the line, I started to play professionally because I found out I had the opportunity of playing for my country. Then more and more opportunities came through. It’s been an interesting journey so far.”
The journey isn’t over yet and her parents have now joined her on the ride. Dropping out of school has been forgiven and forgotten. Now it’s all about ensuring they get their visas in time to watch their daughter represent her country on the biggest stage of all.