Women's World Cup: 'Football is life' -- Nigeria's plan to become a force in women's football

The Super Falcons celebrate victory over the Ivory Coast in the West African Football Union (WAFU) women's final.

(CNN)Rarely is there respite when trying to transform a country's sporting fortunes. For all the talent, there are the obstacles; for all the expectations, there is the actuality. Global acclaim can seem within touching distance, yet the fingertips are still reaching out over a chasm. Hopes are raised, then shattered. Questions are always asked.

Thomas Dennerby spends hours on the road navigating one of the world's most sizeable countries. It comes with the territory of being head coach of Nigeria's women's football team.
The Swede has become accustomed to getting recognized wherever he goes which, as a white man living in Nigeria, is no surprise, he says. When he makes his way through an airport, he is usually accosted by a security guard or a flight attendant, eagerly asking him about the predominant topic every Nigerian wants to talk to him about: football.
Be it from the young or old, male or female, never before has he experienced such joy, such interest in the beautiful game. It has taken him by surprise, it has tugged at the heartstrings.

    Football is life in Nigeria and they always have the feeling they can beat everybody.

    Thomas Dennerby
    "I've never been somewhere where everybody talks about football and the games. Everybody knows about football," Dennerby tells CNN Sport.
    "Football is life in Nigeria and they always have the feeling they can beat everybody. They're full of confidence and the support from the Nigerians is huge. I like that."
    Dennerby, who guided his native Sweden to third place at the 2011 Women's World Cup, became head coach of Nigeria's senior women, better known as the Super Falcons, last January. His task is twofold: maintaining Nigeria's stranglehold on the women's game in Africa, while developing the team into a world force. Such change won't happen overnight, he warns, or even in time for next month's Women's World Cup.
    Selectively chosen statistics would suggest Nigeria is merely a few rungs of a ladder below the world's best. Nigeria has won the Africa Women Cup of Nations a record nine times -- successfully defending their title in the biennial competition since 2014 -- and has qualified for every Women's World Cup. But the higher you climb, the more secure the foundations must be.
    Only six other nations have competed in all seven previous editions of the Women's World Cup, but while those six -- U.S, Germany, Norway, Japan, Sweden and Brazil -- have either won the competition or reached a final, and all are currently ranked in the top 15 of FIFA's world rankings, Nigeria has never progressed beyond the quarterfinals.
    Ranked No.38 in the world, only four countries competing in France this summer will start the tournament ranked lower in FIFA's standings, which leads to the question: why has a team which has been so dominant on its own continent not made a bigger mark on the world stage?

    2017 -- No games and no coach

    "Maybe they don't care about women's football," says Asisat Oshoala of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF).
    Oshoala, a striker who is expected to be one of the stars in France this summer, is trying to make sense of the last few years; attempting to explain the scarcity of international fixtures. Ambivalence is the only conclusion the Barcelona player feels she can come to, though there are shades of grey to consider, too.
    "[Before this year] I'd never played an invitational tournament for my nation before, it was that bad," she continues.
    For Nigeria's female footballers, there is a sense of what if, of what could have been, were there more investment. After all, a team which rarely plays cannot expect to compete with the likes of three-time world champions the United States.
    This month Oshoala became the first African to compete in the Women's Champions League.
    The Super Falcons did not play at all in 2017. Indeed, the team did not have a coach that year after the contract of Florence Omagbemi -- the first woman to win the Africa Women Cup of Nations as both player and coach -- expired at the end of the triumphant 2016 campaign and American Randy Waldrum turned down the role in October 2017.
    While teammates would pack their bags to meet up with their compatriots during FIFA's designated international breaks, Oshoala -- a three-time African Player of the Year and the first Nigerian to play in a Women's Champions League final -- remained with her parent club, Dalian Quanjian in China, whom she joined in February 2017.
    There were no friendlies, no training camps, no opportunities for her and her compatriots to learn, improve and bond.