Much like the freshness of an artist’s new canvas, the Aisha Buhari Cup had the thrills and excitement expected of a beautifully staged tournament.
The annual Invitational tournament organized by the Nigeria football federation for the female national team kicked off the first edition, and the excitement in Lagos was palpable ahead of proceedings.
Morocco, Mali, South Africa, Ghana, Cameroon and hosts Nigeria represented six of the top teams in the continent who would make history at the maiden edition of the Aisha Buhari Cup held at the Mobolaji Johnson Arena, Onikan, Lagos.
The event was named after the First Lady of Nigeria, Mrs Aisha Buhari, and the opening ceremony was graced by the bigwigs of football globally; including the FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, Nigeria’s Football Supremo and FIFA Council Member Amaju Pinnick, FIFA Secretary-General, Mrs. Fatma Samoura, FIFA Council Member Aisha Johansen, CAF Executive Committee Member Kanizat Ibrahim and FIFA’s Head of Women Football, Sarah Bareman were also in attendance, alongside the full complement of NFF Executive Committee Members and Management.
This was a show of approval to the creation of more African women’s football competitions, and the Aisha Buhari Cup would serve as a mini Africa Women Cup of Nations.
All participating teams were to play two matches each and the one with the most points would emerge as champions. The spectacle ran from September 15 to 21, and each day was a must-see.
Fans and players love meaningful competitive games, and this presented a brilliant opportunity to prepare for some big upcoming qualifiers. The fans – it must be said – lapped up the chance to witness their female heroes compete in the flesh.
The hosts kicked off the tournament with a late 2-0 win over Mali courtesy of Gift Monday’s brace last Wednesday. That made it three goals in four substitute appearances for the Robo Queens striker. Nigeria’s Super Falcons had thrown down the early gauntlet
Morocco were at their solid best in a hard-fought 1-0 win over the Indomitable Lionesses of Cameroon. Their wild celebrations at full time only served to show how much this tournament meant to them.
Up next, Banyana Banyana of South Africa were utterly dominant in their 3-0 thrashing of Ghana on Friday. Everyone was already looking forward to a mouth-watering matchup with Nigeria on the final day.
Morocco and Mali’s 0-0 stalemate ruled the former out of winning the tournament before Ghana redeemed themselves with a combating 2-0 win over Cameroon in the penultimate game.
A Befitting Finale
On Tuesday evening, the atmosphere was pumped for the 11th meeting between Nigeria and South Africa. Fans had gathered around the Onikan Stadium long before kickoff taking in the pre-match mood.
A meeting of the top two women’s teams in Africa was a befitting finale to a wonderful maiden tournament.
The Aisha Buhari Cup had seen eight goals up to that point, yet the final fixture began at such a frenetic pace and threatened a record scoreline.
The record African Champions had not scored in their last two meetings with Desiree Ellis’ side, including a 1-0 loss in the group stage and a 0-0 draw in the 2018 Africa Women’s Cup of Nations Final.
However, this was much different.
The South Africans opened the scoring after six minutes from an own goal by Alozie Michelle and the Banyana Banyana quickly added another from the penalty spot through Motlhalo Linda.
The lively South Africans were decisive in capitalizing on their hosts’ errors and added a third goal before halftime via a Gabriela Salgado header.
Super Falcons boss Randy Waldrum made four changes during the break in the hope of inspiring a second-half fightback and got an amazing response via an early goal from substitute Ikechukwu Vivian.
Vivian then repeated the trick with one of the best goals of the tournament to make it 3-2 and spark the partisan crowd into raptures.
The 11-time AWCON winners had their tails up with enough time to turn the game around, but a lack of coherence undermined their best efforts. The South Africans eventually added a fourth goal from the penalty spot late on to make it 4-2.
They were deserving champions and Lagos was quick to acknowledge their victory.
In the final standings, Cameroon finished at the bottom of the six-team log having lost their two games without a goal. Mali also failed to score in their two games but registered a point against Morocco, hence placed fifth.
Ghana’s three points earned them the next spot while Morocco finished unbeaten with four points after a win and draw.
Player of the Tournament
Thembi Kgatlana of Atletico Madrid dazzled the watching crowd in her 180 minutes of action in Lagos.
Nigeria’s home-based pair of Monday and Ikechukwu as well as Motlhalo Linda all scored two goals apiece, but Kgatlana had a far more influential role in South Africa’s campaign.
Her incredible dribbling, silky skills and blistering pace was a delightful sight for the Nigerian crowd who appreciated her quality despite her being a handful and having a big say in three of the four goals Nigeria conceded.
The 2018 CAF Women’s Footballer of the Year had also wowed the crowd and scored a glorious goal against Ghana, and her performance on the final day only put the seal on what had been a wonderful individual outing.
Elsewhere, it is back to the drawing board for runners-up Nigeria who will confront Ghana in a first-round doubleheader for the 2022 TotalEnergiesWomen’s Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers in October where they could meet Cote d’Ivoire or Niger should they advance.
For the Aisha Buhari Cup, all involved had thoroughly enjoyed the experience of witnessing what promises to be a successful event for years to come. Par for the course, two Europeans are set to be invited to the tournament next year.