This year’s Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon) in Morocco has raised the stakes for women’s football across the continent, but the next challenge is to capitalize on its success.
Expanded to 12 teams and with an increase in Confederation of African Football (Caf) prize money, the tournament saw record crowds for women’s matches and culminated with South Africa lifts the trophy for the first time.
“It’s been fantastic but there’s always more to do,” winning coach Desiree Ellis told BBC Sport Africa.
“The next step is to structure the leagues and professionalize the sport. If we want to compete with the rest of the world, this is the way to go because there is enough talent in Africa to win a World Cup. »
A crowd of 45,562 watched the semi-final between Morocco and Nigeria, with the final between the hosts and South Africa breaking that record again with over 50,000 people in attendance at Prince Moulay Abdellah Stadium.
Uganda international Jean Sseninde described the atmosphere as “electric”, while Isha Johansen, the former president of the Sierra Leone Football Association, said she was “stunned” by the number of people in the stands at Rabat.
“I think we have created role models,” Sseninde told BBC Sport Africa. “We have inspired generations of young footballers through this tournament. »
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Morocco have invested heavily in women’s football in recent years, with the Atlas Lionesses finishing second on their return to Wafcon after a 22-year absence.
“Just seeing Morocco with what it has done and the investment it has made, I think women’s football and many countries will learn from it,” said former Nigerian international Mercy Akide.
“When I see these countries investing, if you give it four or five years it’s going to be amazing, I’m so grateful to still be alive to see what Caf is doing for women’s football. »
South Africa has won an improved prize of $500,000, but there is still a vast gap in the rewards offered in the men’s game, given that Senegal scooped $5m for their Nations Cup triumph in February.
CAF’s technical study group has now recommended that Wafon should be expanded from 12 to 16 teams, while at club level the second edition of the eight-team African Women’s Champions League is scheduled for October in Morocco.
Closing the gap with Nigeria
Nine-time champions Nigeria traveled to North Africa as favorites to clinch a fourth straight title but were defeated on penalties by Morocco in the last four and finished fourth after a 1-0 loss to Zambia in the third place play-off.
Akide, a veteran of three World Cups, two Olympics and winner of three African titles with the Super Falcons, said the level of football in Morocco was “the highest level”.
“The quality since my time is improving,” added Akide, 46.
“South Africa have come this far and I congratulate my friend Deisree for what she has done for this team. Watching the Morocco team, the coach [Reynald Pedros] did an amazing job.
“Competition is intensifying and other countries are catching up. Everyone now believes they can beat Nigeria. »
Ellis had already lost finals with South Africa as a player and manager, and was also keen to praise the increased competition.
“It’s fantastic to see that countries are all doing their part for women’s football,” said Ellis.
“You look at some of the countries that weren’t there, like Equatorial Guinea, two-time champions, like Mali, who were semi-finalists [in 2018]so it shows that the game is growing. »
Johansen, who is now an elected board member of world governing body Fifa, believes women have shown they deserve more resources and attention.
“We are no different from men – we have natural talent,” she said.
“It also proves that we weren’t wrong in believing that we should be pushing for our space, to give these girls the platform to grow. I’m super proud to be part of this journey to grow the game on this continent. ”
Progressing in the Women’s World Cup
The Wafcon semi-finalists have all qualified for next year’s Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, with the quota of African teams increasing on all three sides in the last edition in France in 2019.
Morocco and Zambia will make their debuts in the expanded 32-team global tournament, while the quartet could still be joined by two more teams, with Senegal and Cameroon enter inter-confederate play-offs in February.
Nigeria in 1999 are the only African team to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup, but Johansen is already full of optimism for the continent’s representatives next year.
“I’m so excited. It’s amazing, really, to have four African teams in the World Cup, it’s historic,” she said.
“I think our teams will rise to the occasion and make us proud. »
Meanwhile, Sseninde believes the impact of this year’s Wafcon can help make women’s football the next ‘big thing’ in Africa.
“We have to keep pushing and fighting hard because we want to be better than Europe, we want to be competitive on the world stage,” she added.
Nigerian striker Asisat Oshoala was crowned CAF Player of the Year for the fifth time last week and wants young people across Africa to have the opportunity to thrive.
“When I was in school, I had players who were much better than me, but they weren’t supported by their parents or didn’t have access to proper sports clubs,” the star said. Barcelona, 27 years old. .
“It’s my dream to see people grow up and to see young girls grow to the highest level. »