Striker Desire Oparanozie recently quit Guingamp after six years at the French side. In this interview with ’TANA AIYEJINA, the 26-year-old talks about making history at last year’s Women’s World Cup, removal as Super Falcons captain, winning four AWCON, playing at youth level, European football, growing up and more
How have you been coping in France with the lockdown?
It hasn’t been easy at all, but somehow I’ve found a way to get by, taking it one day at a time.
What negative effect do you think COVID-19 has had on sports globally?
EURO 2020, as well as other sporting events all around the globe, the effect has been monumental. Some leagues were postponed and some others cancelled. In the case of the cancelled leagues, some teams that would still have had the chance to survive relegation were relegated. That’s unfair in my opinion. The effect is unfavourable not just to the sporting industry, but across all the sectors globally.
What’s your opinion on the cancellation of the French league?
In as much as I would have loved for the league to continue, we have to consider health first, because this is a matter of life and death. But I do think their (French FA) decision was a bit hasty. They should’ve waited a couple of more weeks to see and observe the turnout of events before drawing the curtain.
After playing for Bayelsa Queens and Delta Queens in Nigeria, you moved to Europe in 2011, playing in Russia, Turkey, Germany and France. How has playing abroad transformed you as a footballer on and off the pitch?
Actually I was in Russia first, and that was in 2012. Playing in Europe could be the key to anyone’s success. I refer to Europe as the theatre of dreams. The moment you find yourself there, and you’re good at what you do, the rest becomes history. My journey is a typical example, and being here has made me grow tremendously both on and off the pitch.
Can you recount your first trip abroad? How did it feel meeting new people and coping with a new environment, weather and culture?
(Laughs) Wow! This is down memory lane. My first trip abroad, I can still remember that experience vividly. I wasn’t sure of what to expect, but I was excited and amazed. It was really hard with the language, food and the weather. Those were the three main factors that affected me more than anything else. I remember eating only rice everyday for a period of time, before I got used to their food.
So, was it easy settling down eventually in Europe?
It wasn’t easy at all. It’s never easy settling down anywhere, mostly when you’re from a different continent, and as a teenager, you are all by yourself. I used to cry those early days. But look at me now, all grown and have settled in well.
Your goals were not enough to power the Falconets to win the U-20 women’s World Cup in 2010 and 2012, as the squad finished second and fourth on both occasions. How did it feel losing to hosts Germany in the 2010 final and crashing out in the semis two years later?
Both tournaments were a success in my opinion. Before I go into any tournament, my top priority is to stay till the last day of the competition. That objective was achieved in both Germany and Japan. Losing to those teams was disappointing. Unfortunately we couldn’t do more than we did, but second and fourth place counts for something in a competition of 16 teams. I would say both World Cups gave my career a head start.
You then went on to power the Falcons to win the AWCON, winning the Golden Boot with five goals. How did you feel achieving such feat at just 20?
Well, winning my first AWCON was huge for me. And that motivated me to win the Golden Boot in my next participation, after which I was among the top three nominations for African Women’s Player of the Year award. It felt great, it made me want more.
What’s it like winning four AWCON tourneys?
There is no word to explain how it felt and still feels: being in four and winning all four. I couldn’t be prouder of what I and my teammates have achieved. It’s all thanks to them that I attained that height.
You’ve played at three Women’s World Cups, reaching the knockout stage in France in 2019, the first time in two decades? What was the mood like in camp the day the Falcons reached the second round as best third-place team?
No doubt, the 2019 World Cup was one of my favourite tournaments. I mean, we made history. Imagine being part of the team that achieved a 20-year history. Upon knowing that we’re through to the next round, we started jumping on each other in the hallway, shouting and crying, tears of joy of course. The mood was everything, exciting and exhausting. Everyone was happy, we sang and gave thanks to God. I even lost my voice, that’s to tell you how epic it was.
Chile posed an obstacle to the Falcons chances of advancing to the second round but crashed out after a third goal eluded them against Thailand in their last group game. There must have been prayers and speaking in tongues in the Falcons camp no doubt. What was going through your mind during the Chile versus Thailand game?
It was a horrific experience. We prayed, we called on God. I’m sure God was tired of us disturbing Him that He then said, ‘here is your qualification, you girls should allow me rest, please.’ It wasn’t an easy experience. All I could think of was going through the next round, I was literally shaking.
Scoring the winner against hosts Cameroon in the AWCON final at the packed Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo in Yaounde in 2016 would definitely represent one of the highlights of your career…
(Cuts in) That’s another of my favourite tournament. You know, I went into that tournament with doubts over health issues. If you could recall, I didn’t play the first two group games. So, scoring that goal in front of 40,000 spectators, 99 per cent of them Cameroonians, with the nation’s president in attendance, on their home soil, was a life saver. With all the stories around it, there’s no better way to explain the feeling. It was another historic evening.
Was there any intimidation tactics applied by the Cameroonians before the final game?
Of course! Isn’t it Cameroon? They must show themselves. It was more from spectators though. On arriving at the stadium, they were banging on our bus, threatening us, on how they were going to beat us, they went on to boo us on the field at every contact we made with the ball. Then on the players’ part, they were abnormally aggressive on the field, going hard on us at every chance they got. But I’m glad with the way we handled it, it was expected, so we took it in pretty well because we understood what was going on. We were prepared for it.
Players protested after the 2016 AWCON and 2019 World Cup over unpaid bonuses. What actually happened? Is it true you led the protest in France after the Falcons crashed out?
One thing you should understand is, players don’t just revolt. Something would have led to it. And what I can tell you is, there were remuneration accumulating from way back 2016 up until 2019, and one of the challenges was offsetting that of the present players in the team, and leaving out the ones that were no longer in the team, which I stood against. I can’t turn my back to such injustice because I’ve collected mine. Anyway, too many things and I don’t want to go into details. Administrative duties play a vital role in athletes’ performance. These things are psychological.
According to Wikipedia, ex-coach Thomas Dennerby made you new Falcons captain because of your ‘discipline and good character.’ Afterwards, you were stripped of the armband by the authorities. Would you say it was because of your stance on equal pay for both gender of players? Were there other issues?
He (Dennerby) trusted me with the responsibility to lead the team, that counts for something. It was an honour. But then, you know how the system works, if you can’t be controlled by the powers that be, you are on your own.
Would you return to the Falcons if you get an invitation?
I don’t know yet. We will see about that.
Most parents don’t like their kids, especially girls, to indulge in sports. Was your case different? Did they apply any form of punishment to stop you?
You already know this. I got enough punishment. It’s almost the same story for every girl-child in an African home. It’s always a tough nut. You would’ve gone through hell before you could convince your parents to let you play football, mostly the mothers. My mum wasn’t having it at all. I would get punished each time I went out to play, but that wasn’t enough to stop me. I would go play again even after all the beating. At some point, dad gave in and started supporting me. That was the turning point for me. You know, in an African home, what the man says stands, as the head of the house. At this point, mum ‘s fight was over.
Tell us about your best goal and worst miss…
I think my worst would be in the game against South Africa at the Nations cup in 2018 in Ghana, precisely our first game in the competition. I felt bad because we lost the game at the end of the day. I’ve scored a couple of fantastic goals. But I think my best one is the one from a 40m distance, in a French league game against Paris FC.
Who’s the toughest defender you played against?
It’s Kadeisha Buchanam. She’s a Canadian defender and plays for Lyon. I’ve had a couple of international encounters against her, and also played in the same league in France. She’s always a tough nut to crack.
What’s your most memorable moment in the game?
My most memorable moment would be when I won my first international trophy (AWCON). That was in South Africa in 2010. The feeling was out of this world, and every other one after that hasn’t felt the same.
Who is your role model?
I have a lot of people I’ve looked up to in the past, and even presently. Amongst them is Perpetua Nkwocha, Abby Wambach of USA, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. I’ve watched these players closely over the years, the way they play appeal to me. And having to play alongside Perpetua, I learnt a lot.
Who do you admire most: Messi or Ronaldo?
Both players are great. It’s unfair when fans compare players. The truth is, there are things Ronaldo can do that Messi can’t do and vice versa. They are different personalities; they don’t play the same type of football, so, why the comparison? I think they are both amazing players.
Are you looking at coaching when you retire?
Coaching is a difficult job. But maybe, possibly, you never know. It’s not top on my list though. But you know how life happens. We will see eventually.
What were the initial challenges you encountered as a young footballer?
Challenges were numerous, there was lack of resources. There will always be challenges, there are still challenges. But the ability to strive through it all has been the key to my survival.
What’s the Nigerian society’s attitude towards footballers, especially the women footballers?
Well, for some Nigerians, we are highly regarded and appreciated. But for most Nigerians, you don’t want to know.
What do you do before and after games?
Well, nothing special before a game, apart from making sure I don’t exhaust myself, and having my pasta four hours before a game. Then after the game, I will make sure I eat eba. That’s the only day in a week I get to eat eba.
What legacy would you like to leave behind for the next generation of footballers?
I would like for them to have a better experience, to be treated better, and fairly. That’s what I’ve always stood for, not for my own benefit, but for the next generation.
As club captain, how do you feel leaving Guingamp after six years?
It’s a bit emotional for me, considering how long I’ve been around for. Here is home for me. But then again, I think it’s time to move on, face new challenges and see what’s out there for me.