The Nigerian’s third African player of the year award, playing for Dalian Quanjian, has been the sweetest after a torrid time at Liverpool and Arsenal
M ohamed Salah’s player of the year award stole the headlines at the Confederation of African Football awards in Ghana but the triumph of the Nigerian forward Asisat Oshoala in collecting the women’s equivalent was similarly special.
On receiving the accolade for the third time – the others coming in 2014 and 2016 – Oshoala was teary as the road to her latest win has been anything but straightforward.
Having won the golden ball and the golden boot at the 2014 Under-20 Women’s World Cup as Nigeria finished runners-up – added to an African Cup of Nations winner’s medal the same year – the young striker started to turn heads internationally.
So when she was unveiled as Liverpool’s latest recruit in January 2015, and with the then manager, Matt Beard, labelling her “one of the best young players in the world”, the transfer was headline news across Africa.
Yet despite the evident talent, the Super Falcons star struggled to make her mark in England. After a year at Liverpool, blighted in the end by injury, and a switch to Arsenal, her two-year sojourn in Europe came to an end when she chose to join Dalian Quanjian in the Chinese Women’s Super League in February 2017.
That is what has made this CAF player of the year award mean so much. With many writing her off she has proved she still has an eye for goal and bags of ability. All the while the Nigerian national team remains in long-term limbo having not played or trained since their 2016 ACN win.
“I think it has to be the best moment of my career so far,” says Oshoala, reflecting on the award. “This is my third one and the best because 2017 was a very difficult journey for me. It was tough for myself, my family and everyone around me because I had to decide to leave Arsenal. A lot of people said to me: ‘Oh she’s going to China. She can’t make anything out of that.’”
But rather than not cope Oshoala has thrived. With 12 goals she was the Chinese Super League’s topscorer, helping Quanjian to league and cup titles before being named the league’s best player. “At the end of the day it has been a great move for me. I had to put in a lot of work. I worked harder because I had to prove people wrong,” she says.
It may not have worked out in England but Oshoala is grateful for her time at two of the WSL’s top clubs. When she joined Liverpool the club had won back-to-back WSL 1 titles and Oshoala took the inaugural BBC’s women’s player of the year award in May 2015. “I think I had a good time at Liverpool and Arsenal. When I was at Liverpool I hit good form. I then got injured and was out for the season. That was tough to take. Before the new season Arsenal came in for me and I thought: ‘I haven’t played for the second half of the season and the top team wants me.’ I had to take a chance and go there.”
But the move south did not pan out: “It was good initially but I had a few issues and I had to choose whether to make the switch to the Chinese Super League.”
Football in China is a different kettle of fish from that in England. However, it is also surprisingly competitive and growing. “We have more top players moving here from Europe. I get messages from different players around the world who want to know what the league is like. Of course the pay is better but it’s not just about the pay. Lots just want to experience something dramatically different.”
And while the overall level may be considered lower, it is a more level playing field across the league. “When you go to England or France you see teams taking 7-0, 8-0 beatings but you don’t get that in China,” she says. “It’s much more even. Every team has players in the national team and players from abroad. That’s what you need.
“I think this is one of the best leagues I’ve played in because it’s rare you see games with large margins. It’s difficult and competitive. If you don’t have a strong character and are coming from Europe for the first time, I think you would find it tough to adapt.”
While her club football is more settled – she plans on staying in China for at least another season – the situation with the coachless international team is a struggle: “It’s been difficult for the team so far. It’s been hard for the girls fighting for wages [the team held a sit-in protest over unpaid allowances following their 2016 ACN win], getting friendly games for ourselves and fighting the federation to give us anything, to get us a coach. But I spoke with the federation president and they have a couple of friendly games lined up. One with France on 4 April has been announced already and I think 2018 will be better for us.”
Being reliant on hand-outs from the men’s side is not the answer for Oshoala, though. “We don’t want to be sharing with the men’s team any more and waiting for the funds to be able to do things,” she said.
“We need our own committees that can run things for the women. We also need top professional coaches. Football is getting harder. There are a lot of teams out there that are getting better every year. We need to do everything within our reach to move forward, keep people in Africa and make us strong enough to compete on a world stage.”