Alabama-born Payne sisters make history for Nigeria at WAFCON

Nigeria have progressed to the quarterfinals of the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations [WAFCON] with the help of the Payne sisters, Nicole and Toni, who became the first siblings to start for the Super Falcons in tournament history.

The pair, who were born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, started for Randy Waldrum’s side against Burundi in a 4-0 win on Sunday, helping the defending champions reach the knock out stage.

Nicole started her first game of the competition, playing at left back, with her sister on the right. The sisters, both of whom played at youth level for the USA, had already made history as the first to represent Nigeria together, but were now doing it at the continental flagship tournament.

“I am really excited. To represent Nigeria with my sister is a dream come true. We feel really proud and blessed to be in this position,” Nicole, the younger of the siblings, said after the game.

Nigeria had lost their opening game of the tournament, to rivals South Africa as they did in 2018’s event too, but two comfortable wins, the first against Botswana with six goals scored and then Burundi, rounded up their group play.

It sent a statement of intent for the rest of the field that while they may have problems with Banyana Banyana, dealing with smaller sides is still par for the course for the 11-time champions.

South Africa beat Nigeria 2-1 in their group C clash at the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations in Morocco. Samuel Shivambu/BackpagePix

Captain Onome Ebi told ESPN that having entered the business end of the competition, the serial champions were ready to take on all comers: “We have entered the quarterfinals and this is where the main game starts.

“We have been through this stage before so we are ready for any team. Whether it is Cameroon, South Africa, anybody, we are ready. No team is underrated.”

Without Barcelona striker Asisat Oshoala, who has been ruled out of the tournament with an injury, Randy Waldrum was compelled to rejig his team against Burundi. The experienced but underperforming Rita Chikwelu was dropped to the bench, as was Francisca Ordega, who electrified when she came on against South Africa and started against Botswana.

Uchenna Kanu got her first start, as did Nicole Payne, who joined her big sister in the starting XI.

As good as that win was, it put the Super Falcons in the somewhat undesirable position of having to go up against arch rivals Cameroon in a high stakes game of World Cup qualification, which could mean that one of Africa’s top teams may lose out on a World Cup tickets.

Victory will secure a ticket to the World Cup, while defeat for the losers will mean having to take a long-winded, roundabout route to get Down Under for the 2023 showpiece.

First, they would have to take part in a repechage competition at WAFCON against the losers of the tie between Morocco and Botswana. If they win that, they would then proceed to an intercontinental playoff against nine other qualified teams, including the other CAF repechage winners.

Uchenna Kanu, who plays her club football in Mexico, scored for Nigeria against Burundi at the WAFCON. Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

This Cameroon fixture echoes 2018, when their opening loss propelled Nigeria to all the way to the final. Back then, after easing through the rest of the group phase, the Super Falcons met the Indomitable Lionesses in the semifinal of the then eight-team tournament. They triumphed 4-2 on penalty kicks after finishing 0-0 in regulation time, before going on to win the final against South Africa, also on penalties.

This time, with the expanded 12-team format, the stage is the quarterfinal, with the Lionesses guaranteeing their knockout spot a day earlier with a 2-0 victory over Tunisia.

Like against most other teams in African women’s football, Nigeria hold a lopsided advantage in this fixture. Of their 12 meetings to date, the Super Falcons have won 10, drawn one and lost just once. That lone reverse was in the third place match of the 2012 tournament.

Despite that dominance, Nicole Payne believes the Falcons will have to work hard to get the job done: “I definitely do think the team is ready for that game. We have all been working really hard and we will do our best to win it. “

The fixture is scheduled for Thursday July 14, while South Africa will take on Tunisia, Morocco will face Botswana, and Zambia tackle Senegal this week.

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