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What to expect from Africa's women at the World Cup in France

Africa have been consistently represented at the Women's World Cup since Nigeria's Super Falcons qualified for the inaugural tournament in 1991, but a title has not nearly been in sight.

Only once has an African side reached the quarterfinals, and that was in 1999 when Nigeria reached the top 8, and that was as far as they went.

What should be expected of the three participating nations in France, namely Nigeria, South Africa, and Cameroon, and can any improve the continent's fortunes in the tournament? 


The Super Falcons

Nigeria are, indisputably, the continent's dominant force in women's football.

They won two unofficial African Women's Championships in 1991 and 1995, before hosting, and winning, the first official event in 1998.

That was the first of five consecutive official continental titles, although they've struggled to translate their African dominance to the global stage.

Despite winning 11 African titles, and qualifying for all eight World Cups to date, they've only once escaped past the Group Stage.

That was in the United States in 1999, when they dispatched North Korea and Denmark in the opening round before falling to Brazil after extra time in the quarterfinals.

It's the highlight of an underwhelming record on the grandest stage of all for the Super Falcons, who have won just three of their 22 matches to date at the tournament.

Things are unlikely to get any easier in France, where they've been paired in Group A with South Korea, Norway, and the hosts.

It's an ominous opening round, but while the hosts are favourites to top the group, the Super Falcons will fancy their chances of qualifying alongside them.

In three-time African Footballer of the Year Asisat Oshoala, they boast one of the potential stars of the tournament, with the tricky forward recently moving to Barcelona after a productive spell in the Chinese Super League.

Oshoala headlines an exciting and dangerous forward unit, although recent defeats by Austria (4-1) and Belgium (1-0) in the Cyprus Cup have raised concerns about their defensive solidity.

This may explain why, at 36, defender Onome Ebi will feature in her fifth World Cup - a record for an African player - after making her bow at the 2003 tournament.

The 2018 Nigerian Footballer of the Year, Ebi's performances belied her advancing years at the Africa Women's Cup of Nations, and she will again offer nous, consistency and leadership in the backline. Don't expect a repeat of last year's 8-0 friendly mauling at the hands of France.

Nigeria qualified for the tournament as winners of the 2018 Awcon, where they defeated Cameroon and South Africa on penalties in the semifinal and final to clinch the continental crown.

Despite their success, it wasn't a wholly convincing showing by Thomas Dennerby's charges, although the Swedish coach will hope that, with improved preparation, they'll be able to give a better account of themselves this time.

Nigeria open their campaign against Norway on June 8 in Reims, before facing South Korea in Grenoble four days later.

Their meeting with France in Rennes on June 17 could be one of the most compelling matches of the first round, and may prove decisive if the Falcons are to advance past the group stage again at the fifth attempt. 


Banyana Banyana 


While success in the Awcon final ultimately proved beyond Desiree Ellis's South Africa team, they had already achieved their primary goal of a first appearance at the World Cup.

Now, they'll be out to prove that they're not just there to make up the numbers, although an opening group containing Germany, China, and Spain represents a particularly menacing hurdle.

Their recent form hasn't been good, but there's unity within the squad and a smattering of real talent as well.

Versatile midfielder Linda Motlhalo will be key, both offensively and defensively, while experienced heads such as Janine van Wyk and reigning African Women's Player of the Year Thembi Kgatlana must be at their best if Banyana Banyana are to navigate their tricky opening round.

The latter, who plays for Beijing BG Phoenix, was top scorer at the Awcon, and boasts over a half-century of caps despite being only 23.

Seasoned head coach Ellis raised a few eyebrows by including inexperienced youngsters Bongeka Gumede, Mapaseka Mpuru and Sibulele Holweni in her squad, although they - like the rest of this South Africa collective - will hope to learn a lot from the campaign in France.

Banyana open against Spain on Saturday, before a showdown with China at the Parc des Princes five days later. They're matches that will be watched with anticipation back home after the national side won many admirers during their run to the Awcon final, although the team must demonstrate - and fast - that they can address their poor recent record against non-African opponents.

Ellis and co. will hope to still be in the running for the Second Round by the time their final group game - against Germany in Montpellier - rolls around on June 17. 


The Indomitable Lionesses  


While Ghana (1999, 2003, 2007), Equatorial Guinea (2011) and the Ivory Coast (2015) have previously represented Africa at the Women's World Cup, only Cameroon - in 2015 - have matched Nigeria in escaping from the group stage.

On that occasion - their first appearance at the tournament - the Indomitable Lionesses smashed a poor Ecuador team in Vancouver and then defeated Switzerland in Edmonton to advance to the Round of 16, where they were duly eliminated by China in a showing that offered hope for the future.

Now's the time to realise the potential hinted at four years ago, because while Cameroon fell short at the Awcon - they defeated Mali 4-2 in the third-placed playoff to qualify for France - they have enough talent to escape from Group E.

The Central Africans open against Canada in Montpellier on June 10, before a potentially gruelling showdown with European champions the Netherlands in Valenciennes five days later.

They conclude their campaign against New Zealand - who have never won a match at the tournament - back in Montpellier on June 20.

As with Nigeria and Oshoala, and South Africa and Kgatlana, Cameroon's hopes will be pinned on their chief attacking threat, with Gabrielle Onguene capable of making the difference between first-round elimination and progression.

The CSKA Moscow forward works well alongside Ajara Nchout, with the duo having demonstrated their understanding with two goals apiece during the Awcon.

At the other end, Christine Manie will be pivotal, and offers experience and leadership in defence. She's been there before, and knows what it takes to escape from the group.

In true Fecafoot fashion, however, preparation has been less than stellar, with Awcon coach Joseph Ndoko dismissed five months before the tournament.

He's been replaced by the team's fitness coach Alain Djeumfa, adding an element of uncertainty to the Lionesses' strategy in France.

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