A 2013 Adidas video provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of Nigerian forward Asisat Oshoala: The teenager washed her face, made a breakfast of four raw eggs, and headed out on the roof to juggle the ball, surrounded by corrugated tin homes, mildewed concrete, clothes lines, and satellite dishes.
“I play football for a living,” narrates Oshoala as she heads to training. On the team bus—FC Robo decal and soccer ball on the hood—the players are joyful, raucous. “I love my teammates very much. We joke together, eat together, dance together, sing together, do everything together,” says Oshoala.
When the team bus breaks down, they get out and push it along the freeway, still smiling. At training, on a dirt field beneath a highway overpass, they jump over upright tires. On a Lagos beach, they do sprints in the sand, running past electrical towers. At game time, with a handful of fans watching, Oshoala does a scissors move in the dirt, scores a goal, and leads her team in a celebration.
Nigeria’s star player and her story are representative of the sort of team the United States was up against in their World Cup Group D finale on Tuesday: a plucky and desperate underdog with an incredible amount of talent and even greater love for the game. Unfortunately for Oshoala and her Super Falcons, though, they were facing one of the world’s few soccer superpowers. The United States ultimately triumphed 1–0 over Nigeria—playing for much of the second half with just 10 women—to claim the top spot in the group and highest possible seeding they could have earned in the knockout round.
As the Americans continue their effort to claim a third World Cup title, Oshoala and Nigeria will now go home. But after another hard-luck tournament for the African champions, it’s worth reflecting on what the success of Oshoala and her team mean for the sport that needs as much support in as many nations as possible to grow to its potential.
Nigeria’s women’s league has been around for more than a decade. According to the BBC, players receive a signing fee ranging from $800 to $2,500, and they make a monthly wage between $50 and $200. Players are able to make a modest living off the game, which allows women like Oshoala to chase their dreams.
Nigeria’s league is, as the BBC describes it, “a pacesetter for the continent.” This support at the league level translates into success for the national team: They have won the African Championship nine of 11 times. In 2014, at the U-20 World Cup, Nigeria lost in extra time to Germany in the final. Oshoala was the leading scorer and MVP of the tournament. She’d go on to become the first African player in the women’s English Premier League and was named the BBC Women's Footballer of the Year this season.
In spite of the continental dominance and impressive results at the youth level, in the senior World Cup success has eluded the Nigerians. While they’ve qualified for every tournament since 1991, they’ve only made it out of group stage once—losing a 4–3 extra time heartbreaker to Brazil in the 1999 quarterfinals after having fought back from a 3–0 deficit.
In Nigeria, the women’s game is growing and attracting more and more fans, and a successful run at the world’s greatest event could have had a huge impact. “We want to show girls and young women in Nigeria what is possible,” Oshoala told USA Today.
In 2015, while the Nigerian side is probably its most talented ever, the team found themselves—for the third time—in the Group of Death, facing three teams ranked in the top 10 in the world.
Faced with Sweden, the No. 5 team in the world, in their opener, Nigeria came back from a 2–0 deficit to tie 3–3. When Oshoala scored the equalizer, the Nigerian sideline went mad—players leaping and rejoicing, two coaches kissing the ground. But the tie against Sweden was Nigeria’s tournament high point. In their second game against Australia, they looked nowhere near as good and lost 2–0.
Against the mighty Americans, the underdog story came to an end. In the 24th minute, Oshoala had her best opportunity with a head-to-head chance against Hope Solo after a gorgeous run, but Julie Johnston’s lunging slide caught her from behind and deflected her shot wide.
Throughout the course of the game, the Nigerians were overpowered by a United States team who looked entirely in control—confident and in sync, playing with a fluidity and conviction they’d lacked in the previous two group matches.
That’s not to say the U.S. was brimming with offensive firepower. The team only had a handful of good chances: In the eighth minute Johnston scored a goal that was ruled offside. Alex Morgan—who started her first game of this World Cup—created a few dangerous chances, and Abby Wambach ultimately found the game winner in the last play of the first half—a flying volley for her 183rd international goal.
But after the 62nd minute, when Ali Krieger’s through ball to Morgan forced Nigerian goalkeeper Precious Dede to come up big, the U.S. offense dried up. Even when Nigeria went down to 10 women after defender Sarah Nnodim was ejected in the 69th minute, there was no U.S. bombardment on the Nigerian goal.
Still, their play grew steadily more convincing as the game went on. Fox announcer Tony DiCicco likes to refer to this as “the U.S. trap”: During the course of the game, the Americans subtly raise their level, until the other team is unable to hang.
Thus far, “the U.S. trap” is also operating at a tournament level—the American side is getting better with each game. With the prospect of facing another difficult opponent in the round of 16—a third-place group stage finisher that could include impressive 2015 sides such as Costa Rica or Colombia, or true powerhouses like England or France—that trend will need to continue.
As for Oshoala and the young Nigerian team, all the hope, all the effort, has ended. They’ve got four more years before they try once more to change history.