Black Queens and Super Falcons dare to transgress on a ‘crooked field’

A Ghanaian woman at celebrations commemorating the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence, Independence Square, Accra, 6 Mar 07. (Copyright © 2007 Oluniyi David Ajao)

Editor’s note: Additional reporting in California from Gabriel Constans.

With Ghana celebrating the 50th anniversary, earlier this year, of its independence, it became still more apparent how football expresses the national identity. The first president of Ghana (née Gold Coast), Kwame Nkrumah, shortly after independence arranged a six-week tour by the late Stanley Matthews, the “Wizard of the Dribble,” who had also been coaching in the British colony.

In Matthews’s own account, he was treated like royalty on this trip—he was crowned “King of Soccer”—and witnessed a football’s anointing:

They gave me a stool, which I still have, and it says, “King of Ghana.” And the idea was that I sat on this sort of throne in an open court outside. … They placed a ball, and I had to put me feet on the ball. Then someone, I don’t know—a witch doctor—drank something from a bottle, and he spit some grout on the ball. The splash came into my face a bit. (Sir Stanley Matthews: A Footballing Legend, Cherry Red Records, 1996).

According to David Goldblatt in The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football (Viking, 2006), Nkrumah, the pan-Africanist, named the national team The Black Stars in homage to the ship that Marcus Garvey had chartered in 1922 to bring black Americans and those from the Caribbean back to Africa. In the 1960s, the game’s importance became solidified with consecutive championships in the African Cup of Nations.

“Football is one of our cultures,” says Joseph Agyeman-Gyau, a striker on the 1963 team (“Ghanaian Football’s Early Years,” BBC Sport, Mar 6).

In societies in which football is played on street corners and in almost every open space, it should not be surprising that women ultimately would take to the game themselves. But generalizing about the state of women’s football in Africa is “fraught with misrepresentation,” writes Martha Saavedra, associate director of the Center for African Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, given the geographical scope and range of attitudes. Two states in Nigeria, for example, Zamfara and Niger, have banned women’s football under the dictates of sharia law. “The sport is against the teachings of Islam,” said Zamfara’s state director of sports. Yet in Nigeria as a whole, Saavedra characterizes the women’s game as vibrant, with women serving also as referees, benefactors and administrators.

Culturally, women in much of the continent struggle against gender-based assumptions and have limited time for leisure relative to men. Yet the Black Queens of Ghana and the Super Falcons of Nigeria, the only teams to have represented Africa in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, must contend with the same institutional shortcomings as the men’s teams as well as the practical challenges of travel and poor infrastructure.

Martha Saavedra

M Saavedra

One of the important implications of Saavedra’s research into women’s sport in West Africa is discovery of the extent to which football helps define masculinity in much of the world. “For a woman to play [football] in many places is a transgression,” Saavedra says in our Sept 4 podcast (see below for download). “People think of it as saying something about what it means to be a man.”

Saavedra herself reflects on a playing and coaching history that entailed training in the early 1980s on a “crooked” field at Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College)—“literally crooked up and down and side to side, both ways.” The women soccer players were denied access to the gridiron surface; similarly, they were denied varsity status for three years, until the athletic administration relented. (For more on Saavedra’s background in soccer, see her essay “Excavating the Field.”)

The narrative of women’s play in Africa might be constructed using the rubric of space. In some cases, occupying public space as a footballer constitutes a statement of socio-economic or political independence. In field work in Senegal, Saavedra writes of discovering the fear that football “will masculinize women and girls.” She continues:

Unlike discussions in the West, a consideration of muscles, femininity and sexuality in Senegal is not (yet) an issue about suspected lesbianism, but about fertility and socio-economic status. Competing femininities reflect this: the rural, muscled, toiling agrarian woman versus the more privileged, urban woman who need not labour physically. In the urban milieu where sport is most common, there exist two idealized femininities that are decidedly non-muscular: the disquette (young, slim, Western-oriented) and the drianke (large, soft, round and economically established). Beauty contests extolling both ideals are popular. Athletic women have to navigate around these images. (236)

In Dakar, Senegal, students view team handball, basketball, volleyball and gymnastics as better feminine exemplars than football, introduced by French soldier-occupiers. But the gender appropriateness of a sport remains in the eyes of the beholder. Saavedra says, “In Senegal, when I was working there, people would say, ‘Football is too rough for women,’ whereas, ‘Basketball is graceful and gentle.’ I went and watched many women’s basketball games in Senegal, and these women were tough and rough and pushing each other around.”

But football, unlike other games, carries a culture-specific gender marker. In Kenya, where Saavedra has also done research, organizers of the Mathare Youth Sports Association in Nairobi—Africa’s largest youth organization—have had to negotiate the unique concerns that parents have for girls. Specifically, parents feared for girls’ safety in traveling to or from football matches and training and that their participation in MYSA’s football programs might bring dishonor to the family or cause girls to neglect family duties. Pressures exist to confine girls’ lives to domestic life, according to an assessment of the MYSA girls’ program (Letting Girls Play):

While in many countries “public space” is not legally defined, there are designated places where citizens can go for recreation, education, entertainment, and to participate in political life. Typically, the kinds of public spaces that are seen as legitimate venues for females—markets, health clinics, and so forth—are those that enable women to fulfill their domestic roles as homemakers and mothers. In contrast, public spaces for males are less narrowly defined and not necessarily linked to their gender roles. … Females have a much more difficult time—and, in some cases, are completely excluded from—visiting spaces such as town halls, parks, and sports stadiums unless they are accompanied by men. (1–2)

International exchange has helped in changing attitudes and in gaining practical assistance for women’s football in Africa, especially in Ghana and Nigeria. Robert Sackey, coach of the San Francisco Nighthawks of the Women’s Premier Soccer League, has actively promoted women’s football in his homeland. Through Hasaacas Youth Academy in Sackey’s native Takoradi, he has helped form women’s teams at several age levels and lobbies football authorities for more resources. The Black Queens played an exhibition against Sackey’s own Nighthawks in fall 06. Four players on the World Cup roster are enrolled at American universities (the University of Alabama and Robert Morris College in Chicago), and striker Rumantu Tahiru soon will enroll at the University of Hull (“Ghanaians Relish English Education,”, Sept 14).

Players exchange banners before a Ghana-Nigeria Olympic qualifier in Accra on Aug 12. Ghana won 1–0 for only its second victory over the Super Falcons. (Ghana FA)

Most of the players come from Accra or from among the Asante of central Ghana and have cultivated a self-image that former international Osei Agyemang, a graduate of Columbia University, calls “beautiful soccer,” with emphasis on aesthetics. “Ghanaians play a very showy style of soccer,” she told The Oregonian at the Women’s World Cup in 2003. “Ghanaians are skillful, creative individuals. … We tend to play a great game, but not have goals.”

Nigeria, with eight players on overseas rosters—seven in Scandinavia—appear more outwardly combative than their sibling rivals. The two nations, who began competing in intercolonial events, including football, in the 1930s, look to each other for rapid comparison in football and in other social aspects. Nigerian blogger Tokunbo, for example, on attending Ghana’s independence celebrations in March, contrasts Lagos to the “peaceful environment” farther west along the Gulf of Guinea:

… everybody just walking peacefully, minding their own business, no wahala [trouble]—compared to Lagos-state hustling-life-style. If Ghanaians were white, I would have said my observations had a reason, but considering they are as black as I am, some even blacker, I remember I wondered “what is the secret of this people.” To be entirely honest, there are a whole lot of things that Nigeria can learn from Ghana—lesson #1 is: how to line up at a bus-stop. I was so surprised to see a tall man lined up behind a child at a bus-stop. The thought that crossed my mind was, if this could happen in Nigeria. (“Giving It Up for Ghana,” My Pen and My Paper, Mar 12)

“[W]e’re never violent, even if the situations seems to call for violence,” Ghanaian journalist Nana Essilfie-Conduah tells author David Lamb in The Africans (Vintage, 1987). “We keep our cool. … The Nigerians calls us the eleven million magicians” (285).

Outwardly, at least in the sources available to us, Nigerian women appear to have fought more battles than the Ghanaians in following their football dreams. Football came to Nigeria solely as a colonial export. Wiebe Boer writes that Nigeria’s major indigenous languages before that time lacked a word for “ball.” Women have played the sport in Nigeria at least since the 1930s but only regularly since 1978. As Saavedra hypothesizes, English colonizers exported intolerance for the women’s game along with football itself. According to Boer, the Nigeria FA in 1950 duplicated the English FA’s ban on women using the football association’s grounds or referees. Women’s soccer in Nigeria went nearly 40 years, until 1989, before gaining official recognition at the National Sports Festival.

Incredibly, within two years the Super Falcons were representing Africa at the first FIFA Women’s World Cup, outperforming the men’s team in Africa and worldwide. The domestic women’s league has proven able to attract sponsorships. In a “classic marriage between capitalism and sport,” Saavedra says, Seven Up (Pepsi) has offered endorsement deals and other support. Politically connected Nigerians, both women and men, have stepped in to aid development of the women’s game, especially within Delta State, called Nigeria’s “home of female football.” The region twice has hosted the African Women’s Championship, most recently in Sept 06 after the Delta State government stepped in to foot the bill. (See the excerpt from Grass Ceiling, above, for footage from the 2002 event in Warri.)

As if they were taking a cue from feminist activists, especially in southern Nigeria, women footballers have been aggressive in pushing for their rights within domestic football structures and for a legitimate affection in the minds of supporters and families. Saavedra mentions former Falcons goalkeeper Ann Chiejine, whose parents, as Chiejine tells the BBC, objected to football because “they felt that football would make me so muscular that no man would want to marry me and I would end up being unable to bear children.” In fact, Chiejine ended up playing while five months’ pregnant at the 2000 Women’s African Championship.

In Grass Ceiling, Mercy Akide laughs hysterically when asked if she might follow her mother’s example by joining a family structure similar to that headed by her father, Chief Jekinson Akide, who has three wives. “Too much stress … kids fighting … I don’t like that,” she says. For his part, Akide’s father supported Mercy: “Everybody has a particular part to play in this life. So if you see your child, whether a girl or boy, interested in football, give the child the chance to play, to play like Mercy. I’m proud of her playing football in the United States.” Akide continues to play for the W-League’s Hampton Roads team in Virginia, although she has placed herself in “self-imposed international exile.”

As to the playing style of the Nigerian women, former coach Sam Okpodu told the New York Times‘s Jere Longman in 2003 that they are loath to seem fragile on the pitch. “One of the common sayings is, ‘Football’s not for women,’ ” Okpodu said. “Now that women are playing, they are playing the same style as men—not backing down for battle” (“Rough Nigeria Team Is Ready for U.S.,” 24 Sept 03).

They have not backed down in periodic disputes with the Nigeria FA. After winning the 2004 African Women’s Championship, team members remained ensconced in a Johannesburg hotel, subsisting on hotel breakfasts and meals supplied by Nigerian expatriates, in a dispute over unpaid bonus money. Before their final group-stage match, versus the USA, in the ongoing World Cup, players staged a strike over bonuses and the daily allowance (Eddie Akalonu, “Falcons on Strike in China, Shame on Country,” The Vanguard [Lagos], Sept 18).

Okpodu said that reaching the quarterfinals of the 1999 World Cup helped empower the women players and granted them leverage in these disputes. “Young ladies who had not been able to express themselves openly were now playing football, one of the few to do something the whole world embraced,” he said. Younger girls began giving teddy bears to Akide and others on the Super Falcons. And then they started to impersonate the new women heroes on dirt pitches across the country.


Wiebe Boer, “A Story of Heroes, of Epics: The Rise of Football in Nigeria,” in Football in Africa: Conflict, Conciliation, and Community, ed. Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 59–79; Martha Brady and Arjmand Banu Khan, Letting Girls Play: The Mathare Youth Sports Association’s Football Program for Girls (New York: Population Council, 2002); Martha Saavedra, “Excavating American Soccer Fields, Uncovering Buried Layers of Sport,” unpublished paper, 1 Jul 06; idem, “Football Feminine—Development of the African Game: Senegal, Nigeria, and South Africa,” in Soccer, Women, Sexual Liberation: Kicking Off a New Era, ed. Fan Hong and J. A. Mangan (London and Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2004), 225–53.


Reports from Muslim-dominated states Kano and Zamfara in northern Nigeria as of Nov 07 indicate that less restrictive, more “practical” forms of sharia’ law have predominated, with women’s rights one area of improvement. Sharia’ police enforcers, the Hisbah, “have largely been confined to their barracks and assigned anodyne tasks like directing traffic and helping fans to their seats at soccer games,” writes Lydia Polgreen in the New York Times (“The Quest for a ‘Human Shariah’ in Nigeria,” Dec 1).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] Making space on a ‘crooked field’ | Black Queens and Super Falcons … – - Global Game, GA - 15 hours ago – The domestic women’s league has proven able to attract sponsorships. In a “classic marriage between capitalism and sport,” Saavedra says, Seven Up (Pepsi) … – [...]

  2. [...] women’s soccer in Ghana and Africa, see our Women’s World Cup entry, plus podcast, of Sept 20. [...]

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