In this interview with TANA AIYEJINA, former Super Falcons and African Woman Player of The Year, Mercy Akide-Udoh, opens up on her illustrious career, coaching, family and more
What are you doing presently?
I have been coaching in the United States but for some weeks now, I have been in Nigeria trying to help young girls. I have a project called Play2Learn. There are some schools in the United States that want Nigerian players to have better education and give them a better life. That is why I am in Nigeria. We had 10 scholarships to give away.
What was the response from Nigerians?
I used the media; my husband Colin and his colleagues have been very helpful. I have no sponsors right now; it’s like charity work for me. I believe that if a girl from a home that has nothing gets educated, the family is made. You know girls don’t forget home. It’s like me; I started with nothing but this is where I am today. I always talked about giving back to the society and that is why I am doing this.
What coaching qualifications do you have and what level of the job are you into in the US?
Well, I have been coaching for a very long time. I have coached in Georgia. I have been in coaching for close to 10 years now. I coach from U-6 to U-16 but my main teams are from the U-9 to U-10 because I like bringing the kids up and teaching them more about foundation. That is what I am doing. I have a youth coaching license.
Would you say constant changing of Falcons players have affected the team?
Every coach has his philosophy of coaching. We swing coaches too often and it affects the girls. You find out that we have a group of talented players but they cannot deliver. They don’t play as a team; they play individual soccer. Our time as players in the national team has passed but the coaches that have been coming in now haven’t stayed too long with the team. They come back from competitions and what you hear is that they are fired. Things can’t work like that. If you give a coach a contract to train the girls, give him time and let him his job. If they don’t deliver, you can tell them to go but they are not given enough time to do what they are appointed to do. It’s messing up the team seriously.
Women haven’t been given much chance to manage the Falcons. Are you interested in the job?
It’s not that I don’t want to coach the national team but right now, my aim is to ensure the project I came to Nigeria to execute succeeds. I submitted my credentials but nothing has been said about it. So I don’t want to think about it. Right now, I believe I should help the kids. If I can help one or two kids to go to America, play football and get educated, I will be much pleased. I prefer doing what I am doing now to thinking of coaching the Falcons. Along the line if it happens, okay, but I am not keen about it.
The present Nigerian Football Federation board has been giving jobs to a lot of retired male footballers. Do you think the women deserve similar treatment?
I think the NFF know what they are doing. They want to start first with the men because the men’s game first came before women football. But we have achieved more than the men. We need the men and the men need us as well. We went to the World Cup before them. We’ve done so well and they should try and also focus on the women too. They need to do something for the girls.
Were your parents happy that you wanted to become a footballer?
My mum was very happy that I played football. It was a surprise. She took me as a tom boy. I only have two brothers and I was running around with them. So, she didn’t mind me going out with my two brothers to play. And when the Falcons went to China in 1991 for the first Women World Cup, I said I would play for the team. She encouraged me to the last but my dad was unhappy because he felt football is a man’s game. He didn’t want me to get hurt but along the line, he saw that I had passion for the game and it didn’t bother him anymore.
Was it easy getting your first club as a young girl?
We started at grassroots level in Port Harcourt. We started out with a team called Garden City; I don’t know if they still exist. We started the club from school. We played school competitions and they picked the best players. That was how the team was formed. It was like a one man show; we didn’t have much funds. I was playing barefooted when I started. I didn’t have kits for a very long time. I had kits when I came to Lagos to play for Jegede Queens. So, it took me a while to be where I am today.
What were the major challenges faced by players in your time?
We faced a lot. There was the issue of provision for us and when we got to camp, we didn’t have the necessary equipment; there was no decent camp for us. They were just throwing us from one hostel to the other, which they called camps. We didn’t also prepare early enough for competitions, although that is what is still going on now. It has never changed. We succeeded because we just wanted to play; that was our aim. We wanted to make a difference and I think that is what differentiates us from the present players.
How was competition for players like then?
You had to fight for your place; if you didn’t, somebody else will take over. When I came into the team, Okunwa Igunbor was playing on the right wing. In practice, it wasn’t that she was doing badly but she wasn’t doing what the coaches wanted. I was the up-and-coming player, I was recalled to the team, I ws fired up, the coaches saw the passion in me and I took her position. Some other coaches would have said, ‘She (Igunbor) is an old player, let her start.’ I was the only new player but the coaches knew I would do well.
How true were stories of lesbianism in the Falcons camp?
You know what, I don’t pry into people’s business. That is their problem and I didn’t know what they were talking about. I don’t want to make any comment about that because I was in the national team to play the game. I didn’t go there to look at what others were doing. I was just there to play and that’s all.
What was the secret behind the Falcons’ quarter-finals outing at the 1999 Women’s World Cup, their best ever achievement?
Honestly, we had better preparation then. We went to Germany and Holland and we played men’s teams, not just girls. I think that was what gave us the motivation. We felt if we could play against the boys, then we could do better. I think that was the secret. We also had a leader in Florence Omagbemi, our captain. We just didn’t go to the pitch like that; we had somebody that was leading us. Florence was a good leader; she captained the team very well and carried everybody along. If a player was down, everybody had to go down with that player. We were together.
After winning the first game, the Falcons were humiliated 7-1 by hosts USA. What happened?
I won’t lie; I think the stadium contributed to the defeat. We were playing the home team and the fans came in large numbers to cheer their team and we got rattled. It was overwhelming when the crowd cheered. You could hear it on the pitch. It was echoing. Most of us were young and it wasn’t easy handling the pressure. It was a lot more pressure than when we played Denmark in the first match.
How were you able to get yourselves back to winning?
Well, coach (Ismaila) Mabo didn’t say anything to us when we got into the bus after the game. When we got to the hotel, the only thing he said was that we should sleep and get over it because we still had one more group game to go. If we won the game, we still had a chance of qualifying. We came out that morning, we talked to each other and we picked ourselves up. I think that was the game changer; we didn’t relent.
You were down 3-0 to Brazil in the quarter-final but the team equalised in the second half before you lost 4-3 in extra time. How did you feel with the semi-final in sight?
We were thinking we were going to make it to the semi-final since we came back from 3-0 down to equal score 3-3 and we were still fired on. It started from the dressing room; we knew that if we didn’t get goals, we were not going to make the Olympics. And we wanted to be part of the Olympics. We talked to each other and encouraged each other. We got on the pitch and got the result. We were sad when the Brazilian goal came in extra time. Ann (Agumanu) was down and they brought the second choice goalkeeper. But I am not putting blame on anybody. A free-kick can beat anybody. The Brazilian girl was a good free-kick taker and she got the goal. We were pleased getting to that stage. It was a good outing for us.
How did you feel being the first African to be named in FIFA’s world 11?
I am grateful and I thank God for everything He has done in my life. It was amazing to be the first African to achieve that. I was very happy.
What were your best and worst moments?
Do I really have any bad moments? I think the only bad moment I had was when I was first invited to the national team. I went to the camp late 1994 and coach (Paul) Hamilton told me I was still young. He said if I changed my attitude towards the game, I would make the team when they called me again. So, I went back because that got me fired up and I started working so hard. I was not just scoring for the team when I returned in 1995; I was playing for the team. My best moment was the 2004 Olympics in Athens. It was against Sweden and I scored a beautiful goal, a volley. It was a wonderful goal and what made it even more beautiful was that after the game, Colin proposed to me and told me he had already fixed a date for our wedding.
How did you meet Colin? Was it love at first sight?
Well, we were friends for two months and then he asked me out. That was it.
Would you say meeting Colin, a sports journalist, changed your career for the better?
It gave me another impression about journalists. You guys are not bad guys after all. During my career before I met Colin, I always thought you guys were bad guys. You know how you people wrote bad stories about us, that we were not doing well. You guys put us so down and we didn’t want to have anything to do with you. But now I have a different impression. It’s just like me; they say I am mean when I enter the field. Sure, I may look mean but when I come off the pitch, I am different.
How did you feel on your wedding day?
How would I feel? I was just excited as a woman. I was happy to settle down with my lovely husband.
Are your kids into football as well?
I have two beautiful girls. The older one Coleen will be six this month while Madison just turned three. Madison runs around with me and Coleen says she wants to be a goalie. In future, I don’t know which country they are going to play for. It’s going to be their calling and not mine.
What do you think is the problem behind Falcons decline in Africa?
We have a lot of problems. We don’t have the younger ones taking over from the older ones. Look at USA’s Mia Hamm and the other players. Before they left, Amby Wambach was young. They had a youth programme that they picked from; it’s not about calling up 60 players today and 70 tomorrow. You need to groom the younger ones with the olders ones so that as they are growing, they will follow the legacy. Today, Wambach has beaten Hamm’s record and that is the way our team should have been. I got married and they didn’t call me to the Falcons again. They just kicked me away. It’s not supposed to be like that. You shouldn’t just kick out somebody who has done so much for Nigeria. Even if you want to push the person away, do something for her. Put her story there for the younger ones to emulate. Now, I don’t even know most of the kids. In the US, their players are celebrated but there is nothing to read about us. I am talking of the likes of Omagbemi, Uche Eucharia and Ann. I met them in the team. It’s not supposed to be like that. And it hurts.
Who was the toughest defender you played against?
It would be the US defence. Their defence was very solid; they read the game very well. Joy Success gave me a very tough time.
Any regrets playing for Nigeria after the way you were left out of the team?
I am blessed. Without Nigeria, I don’t think I will be where I am today. I don’t have any regrets at all. When something happens, it’s another step for you to move on. I think they pushed me to my glory because without that, I don’t think I would have had kids early. Now, I have two kids and I still have one to go. I am doing very well. I am not regretting being a Nigerian; that is why I am home to give to the kids. I don’t want their situation to be like mine. I want theirs to be better than mine. Taking them to America will better their lives, their families and Nigeria because after their studies, if they want to play for Nigeria, then we will have better trained players. We have no structure and facilities here. Even youth clubs in the US have better facilities than our national teams. If I have more Nigerian players schooling there, the better for our football.
If you were not a footballer, what would you have been?
Well, I love people. I could have been a nurse if I didn’t play football. I love to help people.
Recently, FCT Queens players reportedly went into prostitution because of lack of salaries…
I have been following the team for a very long time. They played Rivers Angels recently and they lost 2-0. They are always like that. They owe them salaries, the kids work so hard all year and I think at the end of the year, they just pay them all their money. But it shouldn’t be like that. How do they take care of themselves? These are ladies who need to be taken care of. I feel so bad. It was like when we were playing.
What is your advice to young female footballers in Nigeria?
They have to be disciplined, put in more and that will make them better.