It wasn’t always plain sailing for Paris FC and Nigerian goalkeeper, Chiamaka Nnadozie, throughout her now-flourishing career.
Growing up in a family of boys and men – who had all tried their hand at going professional – Nnadozie’s ambition to follow suit wasn’t greeted with unyielding enthusiasm. Quite the opposite.
“It wasn’t very good from my family. They never let me play, especially my dad,” the 22-year-old told CNN’s Amanda Davies.
“Whenever I went to play soccer, he would always tell me: ‘Girls don’t play football.
Look at me. I played football, I didn’t make it. Your brother, he played, he didn’t make. Your cousin played, he didn’t make it. So why do you want to choose this? Why don’t you want to go to school or maybe do some other things?’” Nnadozie recollected.
Despite the cynicism, Nnadozie continued to play football to fulfill her dream of playing for Nigeria. Her mother was instrumental in keeping that hope alive, often taking Nnadozie to her auntie’s house where she could play freely without refute.
It’s been a long, winding road from a small semi-urban town in Nigeria to the World Cup knockout stages. But for Nnadozie, it’s a journey looked back on with pride.
‘I was crying’
The Nigerian goalkeeper rose to stardom after becoming the youngest-ever goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet at a Women’s World Cup back in the 2019. Only 19 years old at the time, Nnadozie played three games in France, showcasing confidence and authority on a level more commonly associated with seasoned professionals.
“Initially, I was the second goalkeeper in the team,” Nnadozie said recalling her emotions at the 2019 tournament.
“During the second game, when the coach told me I would be playing, I was very scared because I was still very, very young. I was crying.
“Some of my teammates, they came to me and they were like: ‘Come on, you have to do this, we believe in you, God believes in you, so you have to believe in yourself.’”
Nigeria won the game 2-0, and so history was written with Nnadozie’s name etched into the record books.
Fast-forward to 2023, and Nnadozie is fresh off a host of impressive achievements with both club and country.
But, with the help of Nnadozie’s performances in goal, Nigeria finished second in the group, picking up two clean sheets along the way, before bowing out of the competition at the last 16 stage to European champion England.
In the group stage game against Canada, Nnadozie was met with a familiar face in Christine Sinclair whom she had played against two years prior. When Sinclair won a penalty early in the second half, the burden of a potential losing start to Nigeria’s World Cup campaign was left solely on the shoulders of Nnadozie.
“So in the last two years, we played against Canada and I made a mistake. There was a mistake from me and she scored. So during the World Cup, when she took the ball to take the penalty, I was like: ‘Not you again.’”
Despite the initial pessimism, Nnadozie got down well to her left, parrying Sinclair’s penalty to safety, and rescuing a crucial point for Nigeria, without which the Super Falcons may have proved the pre-tournament sceptics right.
Penalty prowess is but one weapon in a goalkeeper’s arsenal that justifies their place in the starting XI, and Nnadozie’s level of skill wielding that weapon is approaching mastery.
She performed similar heroics for her club, Paris FC, in their Women’s Champions League qualifier in September against English side, Arsenal, saving spectacularly from Alessia Russo and Frida Manuum in a penalty shootout victory that booked the Parisians’ place in this year’s competition.
In the next round, Paris faced last year’s finalists, Wolfsburg, over two legs where Nnadozie once again provided the penalty-saving heroics, denying Wolfsburg’s Dominique Janssen in the second leg to help her side advance to the group stage of the Women’s Champions League with a famous victory.
What’s the secret to Nnadozie’s penalty-saving success? No rituals, no whacky superstitions – just ice in the veins.
“To be honest with you, no pressure. Yes, pressure from the team, but for me personally, there is no pressure at all because when I’m calm, I understand myself more,” she said.
Finding a place
Unbeknownst to many, Nnadozie started out not in goal, but as an outfield player.
It was only when, in 2012, she inadvertently found herself between the goalposts playing for her local team in Nigeria, that she decided to dabble in goalkeeping.
After pleading with her manager to replace her fatigued teammate in goal, such was the brilliance of her performance, that her coach’s response was simply: “If you want to be in this team, then you have to be a goalkeeper.”
In 2016, Nnadozie was asked to represent Nigeria at the Under-17s Women’s World Cup in Jordan. After that, her father finally came around.
“One time when we’re playing against England, my mom called out: ‘OK, do you know this person?’ And he was like: ‘Is this my daughter?’ My mom said: ‘Yeah, she’s playing for Nigeria now on the national TV.’ And he was so happy.
“When I came back, he hugged me, he was calling some friends: ‘Hey, my daughter is back!’” Nnadozie recalled, smiling.
The rise of Nnadozie has run in tandem with the rise of female goalkeepers globally.
Perspectives are changing, and thanks to trailblazers like Nnadozie, England stopper Mary Earps, Chile’s Christiane Endler, the jersey manufacturers are finally starting to notice that young girls want to be the next Earps, the next Endler, and the next Nnadozie.
“Mary Earps, she’s all over the world. She has won the Euros and she’s a very good goalkeeper. It’s the same with Endler. I’m happy I’m being mentioned among these people,” said Nnadozie.
Nnadozie’s rise to the top has been anything but orthodox – from starting outfield to opposition from her father – as will be the case with millions of young girls around the world. Nnadozie’s advice to those aspiring footballers is inspiring, yes, but concurrently candid.
“All I’m going to say to them is just keep being you, keep working hard,” she said. “Always do the right thing, even nobody’s watching you. It’s difficult when your parents doesn’t support you. What can you do?
“But we just have to keep working hard and believe in yourself. One day, the skies will be your starting point.”
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