Nigeria defender Onome Ebi says she is still in love with her football at the age of 40 as she makes her sixth appearance at the Women’s World Cup – a record for an African player.
The goalkeeper and leading cap player played for 10 clubs in a career spanning 23 years.
“I love what I do and set records, and to get a chance to play in my sixth World Cup feels unreal,” Ebi tells BBC Sport Africa.
“My hard work and dedication is paying off and it feels good.”
After making her debut at the 2003 World Cup for the United States at the age of 20, she has been a key element of the Super Falcons’ defence, also playing in the 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019 tournaments.
At the finals in France in 2019, Ebi became the first African player – male or female – to appear at the World Cup five times.
“At my first World Cup, in 2003, I never dreamed I would be playing sixth. This is like a dream come true,” she said.
African record breaker
Three other players have traveled to the Women’s World Cup six times, with two of them – Brazil’s Marta and Canada’s Christine Sinclair – also at this year’s tournament in Australia and New Zealand. Japan’s Homare Sawa played in her sixth and final World Cup tournament in 2015.
However, none of those players can match Brazilian midfielder Formiga’s all-time record of seven consecutive appearances between 1995 and 2019.
“It takes more than 20 years to play the best football to play in six tournaments. It is huge,” said Ebi.
“When you’re committed and disciplined, it can take you beyond your wildest imagination.”
Adding to her record in Africa, Ebi remains as important to the team as ever.
A rock at her back and an immeasurable influence on those around her, she developed into an attacking threat from set pieces.
“I love this game and I’ve always wanted to do my best and continue as long as possible,” she says.
“I managed to stay relevant in the team by working hard.”
The well-travelled Ebi joined Spain with top flight Levante Las Planas last September, his 10th professional club.
After a period of seven years together with Omidiran and Bayelsa Queens in Nigeria there was time with Swedish clubs Pitea and Djurgarden.
Successful spells followed in Turkey from 2011 to 2013 before returning to Sweden to play for Sunnana SK.
Three years with Chinese club Henan Jianye between 2017 and 2020, followed by two successful spells at Belarusian club FC Minsk, where she won four domestic titles before leaving in November 2021.
A seven-time African Women’s Cup of Nations (Wafcon) participant and a four-time winner of the continental showpiece was part of the Nigerian team beaten in last year’s Wafcon semi-final in Morocco.
American coach Randy Waldrum and the Super Falcons squad came under heavy criticism after their performance in North Africa.
Friendly wins followed over Mexico and Costa Rica before Nigeria produced a dominant display to beat fellow World Cup hosts New Zealand 3-0 in April.
That win restored hope ahead of the team’s opening group final, 0-0 draw with Canada. in which Sinclair missed a penalty.
Ebi was an unused substitute but will have further opportunities to add to her record when Nigeria face Australia on July 27 and the Republic of Ireland four days later.
‘We have a huge chance’
The build-up to the tournament in Australia and New Zealand has been hit by payment rows involving coach Waldrum, the players and the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF).
Reports in the local media have suggested that the squad plans to boycott the World Cup matches if the NFF does not comply with an agreement to give the players 30% of the tournament revenue it receives from Fifa organisers.
The NFF says it will no longer share that 30% since, for the first time, FIFA is paying each individual player in the World Cup at least $30,000 to participate in the group.
Team captain Ebi has since taken to social media to deny any boycott.
Nigeria must escape a tough group before they bid to win a World Cup final for the first time but Ebi believes they can rise above any off-field issues and their opening opponents.
“We have a huge chance and we all have to do very well in the competition,” she says.
“When it comes to experience, fast players, young players, strong players – we all have what it takes to make a difference.”
Nigeria are the only African nation to have ever appeared at all eight World Cup tournaments since the first edition in 1991.
Their best performance came when they reached the quarter-finals in the USA in 1999, and they also reached the knockout stage in 2019, losing 3-0 to Germany in the last 16.
“With the quality of players we have, our fans should expect a lot from us,” accepts Ebi. “We are ready to give everything we have to make this our best.”
Even at 40, the veteran is ready to lay everything on the line for his country.