A veteran of two FIFA U-20 Women's World Cups, Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala feels a strong connection to FIFA’s youth competitions. It is the place where she learnt the big lessons and made the big choices that ultimately led her to awards, accolades and a place at the FIFA Women’s World Cup™.
But well before the teenage dreams of wearing green jerseys and scoring goals in faraway lands, there was a little matter of shaping her skills on the local pitches of Ikorodu, 36 kilometres north of Lagos.
“When I was in school I used to play football with boys,” Oshoala told FIFA.com. “I was in this six-a-side team. The boys always used to say to me: 'Don’t go to the front, just stay at the back. Just kick the balls out. You can’t score goals. You can’t dribble past defenders.'
"And then the day came where we made it to a final. I dribbled two or three players and scored a goal. 1-0. End of the game. I remember saying to them, 'Look at that. You don’t believe in me but look at what I can do.”
Oshoala considers that moment her first valuable life-lesson. “When you have this determination, and people see this determination in you, eventually they have no choice but to give you the support you need to get you where you want to go,” explained the Arsenal Ladies midfielder, reflecting warmly on those first boisterous barriers in her carrier.
From Ikorodu to Saitama
On the international front, it all began for then-17-year-old Oshoala with a surprise call up to the Nigeria team for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Japan 2012. “I didn’t think I was even going to get to pass the ball at the U-20 (tournament) because I was so young,” said the midfielder. “I thought I was just making up the numbers.”
Oshoala came on as a substitute in the 76th minute of Nigeria’s opener against Korea Republic. Her performance for those final 14 minutes was so impressive that she started every subsequent match at the tournament, helping Nigeria all the way to the semi-finals.
“Then and there I learnt that when given an opportunity, you give it your best,” she said. “You might not see them, but someone is always watching. It was a great lesson for me. It’s something I’ve carried from Japan into every match I play now.”
Goals and golds in Canada
Oshoala failed to score in Japan, a statistic she was quick to remedy at the next FIFA U-20 World Cup where she scored seven goals in six games. She left Canada 2014 with a runners-up medal hanging from her neck, the golden ball award in one arm, the golden boot under the other and several shattered tournament records in her wake, including becoming only the third player in the competition's history to score four goals in one match.
“Canada was a massive one for me,” she said. “I wanted to do better. I wanted people to come not only watch my team, but I wanted them to come watch the girl who is determined, the girl who is always ready to give her best.”
Perhaps one of the most representative moments of her confident and competitive character took place against England in their final group stage game of Canada 2014. Locked at 1-1, England’s Bethany Mead missed a penalty in the 53rd minute. Just six minutes later, Oshoala was brought down in the box and given the same chance to snatch the lead.
“It was a crucial penalty for the team,” she said. “We had to score. We had to win the game to qualify for the next round. It wasn’t planned that I take it. We had a penalty taker, but I could see that she was scared. I walked up to her and said, 'I’ll take it for you.'
"I wanted the challenge, I remember thinking, ‘I’m the old player in the team, I’m the one that played at the previous U-20, I should be able to step up and do it for my team.”
Oshoala slotted the ball away coolly and Nigeria ran rampant through the knockout stages until a 98th minute goal in the final against Germany ended the Falconets hopes of a first ever U-20 Women’s World Cup trophy.
The biggest stage
It was no surprise then, that less than a year after the U-20 tournament where she nearly swept the individual honours, Oshoala received a spot in Nigeria's starting XI in their opening match at Canada 2015. “The Women’s World Cup was something completely different," Oshoala recalled. "I’d never experienced playing for such big crowds. I remember having to reprimand myself a few times.
"I kept having to remind myself to not go onto the pitch and just start looking at my idols and not play football. I kept refocusing on this thought, ‘I’m going to go there and play the game I have inside me.'”
Only 21, and already at idol-status herself for younger generations of players, Oshoala is acutely aware of her responsibility. “I want to be an inspiration to others,” she said. “So whenever I’m given the opportunity to represent my country I have to give my best.”