Super Falcons and Portsmouth Ladies striker, Ini Umotong was in the Nigeria’s squad to the Women’s World Cup ending today in Canada. Although she did not get the chance to play but she insists making the squad is big deal. Read what she told Punch’s ’Tana Aiyejina in an interview:
How did you feel when you were named in the Falcons’ World Cup squad despite not being part of the qualifiers for the event?
Representing your country at the World Cup is every footballer’s dream, and being given the chance to represent Nigeria among so many very good talents was just incredible. I was really excited.
The Falcons crashed out in the group stage of the Women’s World Cup in Canada. What lessons did you learn from the outing?
I think our main problem was that we came out against Australia thinking it would be an easy game, so we let our guard down massively for the game. The biggest learning curve would be to treat every game like a World Cup final.
Do you feel bad not playing in any of the team’s three games?
No, I don’t have any regret at all. I’m still very young and so I take everything as a learning experience. I learnt so much, which I’ll be looking to put into future games and tournaments.
There were rumours about internal disputes and that some players didn’t want Asisat Oshoala to succeed in Canada. Is it true?
No, there’s no truth in it at all. We were a tight unit in camp. We all wanted to succeed and we knew we needed each player to stand a chance. If there was any dispute I was oblivious of it. Of course there were frustrations at times in training; that’s normal in any team, but what happened on the field stayed on the field. It was like an unwritten rule in camp.
How would you describe your season in general?
It was great. I scored 29 goals in 25 games and we won the league. I’ve learnt so much and grown as a player. Breaking into the Falcons has obviously been the highlight of it all and I’m looking forward to the next big step in my career.
It was unbelievable leaving out a 29-goal-a-season striker on the bench in Canada, when Falcons needed goals desperately. Do you think you would have made the difference if you played?
I like to think I could have made a difference but it wasn’t my time. I still hold so much respect and trust in the coaches as I believe they were doing what they thought was best for the team. I’m grateful to have been selected for the World Cup squad and so I’ll be looking to make my mark in future games.
Who is your best friend in the team?
There are a few girls I became really good friends with Courtney Dike, Josephine Chukwunonye, Francesca Ordega and captain Evelyn Nwabuokwu. If there was anything I needed, I went to them. But all the girls were so much fun to be around with; they made me feel at home.
Cameroon reached the knockout stage of the competition. What do you foresee for African teams in the future?
Women’s football in Africa is growing for sure. I expect to see more African countries in big world tournaments in the near future.
How did you feel when you first got a call-up to the Falcons?
It was a dream come true. Having the chance to perform on an international platform has always been my goal, and to be able to do so for the country of my birth is nothing less than amazing. I’m so excited.
Can you tell us more about yourself, since not much is known about you in Nigeria?
I was born in Calabar, before me and my family moved to Birmingham when I was a year old. I started playing football at the age of five and joined Birmingham City Ladies Centre of Excellence at the age of nine. I developed with them until I was 17. Then I joined Aston Villa Ladies first team, where I was one of the youngest players in the National Premiership at the time. At 18, I was offered a full scholarship to play Division One soccer at Wright State University in Ohio, America. I played there for two seasons before returning back to England to finish my studies and then join Portsmouth Ladies.
Before your invitation, what was your impression of Nigerian football?
Football in Nigeria is really big, but I never really thought of going out there to play because of commitments here in England with school. I keep up to date with women’s football worldwide, so I knew the Falcons were a very strong side. I was always looking forward to the prospects of becoming part of the team and contribute my quota.
With your fine performance in English football, were you at any point considered for invitation to any of the English national teams?
I was called up a few years ago for England U15s but none since then. I’ve been working really hard for a chance for another international call-up. My coach told me he knew an invite was coming for me, but he was expecting it to come from England. However, it came from Nigeria and I am happy to represent my country of birth.
You made your Nigeria debut against Mali in Bamako in a 2015 All Africa Games qualifier in March…
Yes I did. I came on in the 57th minute and it was amazing. It was such an incredible experience. I loved it and I can’t wait to wear Nigeria’s colours again, hopefully in the near future.
Yes I was very (anxious to score), although I was more anxious to win than score. Hopefully, I will get a chance next time to score for Nigeria.
You are a reputed goal scorer in England. What do you think you can bring to the Super Falcons?
I am hoping I can continue with last season’s form for the Falcons. As a forward, my primary job is to score, so to do exactly that for the Falcons will make me very happy.
Nigerian legend Nwankwo Kanu once helped Portsmouth win the FA Cup. What impression do Portsmouth fans have of him?
Of course everyone in Portsmouth knows Kanu. So as a fellow Nigerian, it feels like a duty to try my best to follow in his footballing footsteps, and represent Nigeria in the best way possible with my performances.
What are you studying and has it been easy combining education and football?
I am studying economics and actuarial science at the University of Southampton. I have always had to juggle football with school so it’s almost like second nature to me now. I know any time I find myself with extra time, it has to be spent working, so it hasn’t been too challenging.
If you were not a footballer, what would you have been?
I like mathematics and I’m good with numbers, so something along those lines I think.
You would probably be a mathematics teacher?
I think it would probably be more in the risk and insurance sector of things.
What was the highlight of your season?
The highlight of my season was beating Blackburn away in the 3rd round of the FA Cup. It was a very intense game as playing away from home is never easy. But we won 5-4 and I scored a hat-trick for the second time in the FA Cup competition.
A lot of African players based abroad find it difficult playing in African conditions: the heat, poor pitches etc. Can you cope?
I have experience playing in the heat from America. I also have access to facilities that can prepare me for playing in different climates which my coach will be working with me to do. I understand it will be different but hopefully I can adapt to it.
Who is your role model footballer?
Kanu and Thierry Henry are probably my two biggest footballing role models. Growing up, they were the two that I always loved watching most on TV. Both have different strengths, which I’ve always tried to incorporate into my own performances.
Though you’ve been out of Nigeria for a long time now, are you hoping to help young Nigerian children or girls in future?
In America, I coached U9s and U11s girls’ teams and I really enjoyed it. So I’d love to be involved with something like that in Nigeria, if I get the opportunity.
On a lighter note, what is the craziest thing you’ve done on the pitch?
(Laughs) One of my goals last season was an overhead bicycle kick. I didn’t think it was possible to get my legs as high as they went but it happened and I scored.
Which defender has given you the toughest time in your young career so far?
Believe it or not it’s been defenders in my own team. In training they really push me to the maximum and don’t let me get away with much. They also give me helpful advice on what kind of things are hard for them to deal with as defenders and things that are easy for them. It helped me grow as a striker, especially when playing with amazing defenders Erin Vaughn and Dan Petrovic at Aston Villa, and Leeta Rutherford at Portsmouth. They all definitely fall under this category.
What are your best and worst moments?
My best moment was when I played in the United States while my worst was missing a penalty for the first time in my career, which meant we didn’t progress to the final of a a competition in America.