“We were willing to do die for it,” Mercy Akide tells FIFA.com when asked about the importance of Nigeria's unforgettable 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup USA™. “We went there with a mission: to set a higher goal for African women's football. We did that.
"We gave everything we had to make female football grow not just in Nigeria but in Africa because the game wasn't respected. We wanted to show everyone that we could play, no matter where we came from or what we faced to get there. We tried as African women to show that we could do something that didn't involve being at home or in the kitchen or serving men, that we could play the game.”
First win and crushing defeat
The Nigerian women had not performed well at the first two Women's World Cups, earning just a point from six matches with a minus-16 goal difference. But led by 'Marvellous Mercy', 23 at the time, they had romped their way through African qualifying – scoring 28 goals to zero against in five matches – and were considered dangerous outsiders in Group A, which included dark horses Korea DPR, the 1991 champion hosts and two-time quarter-finalists Denmark. Akide says the team came to USA 1999 more ready than their previous trips to the finals, having been in long training camps in Europe.
“When we got to the finals, you could see the difference," Akide said. "We were prepared. We knew the other teams might have more experience, but we were not afraid of them.”
Their first challenge was the Koreans, and the 2-1 victory immediately won the team fans with their attacking flair and flamboyance. “We brought our own style and did our own thing," Akide remembered with her trademark joyous laugh. "I had my hair coloured green and white and cool things like that. We competed hard, but we had fun."
She assisted on the eventual winner, but it was her remarkable opener from the end-line into the top angle of the goal that set the tone, Akide recalled: “I will never forget that goal. It was amazing. I really just wanted to get the ball on target, and it went perfectly in the corner. It made us believe we could get more.”
“The honest truth is that we could not believe the crowd, and we were overwhelmed,” Akide admitted. “Everyone was just going crazy, and then we scored the goal, and it all just went silent. And then when they scored back quickly, everything just descended on us, and it was too much for us to handle.”
Recovery and a sensational finish
Coach Ismaila Mabo settled the team afterwards, and just three days later the Falcons defeated Denmark 2-0 with Akide again leading the way with the opening goal. It was a surprising result, one that earned the Falcons second in the group and a mouth-watering match in the quarter-finals against an impressive, attack-minded Brazil side. The match promised to be one for the ages, and it did not disappoint, serving up one of the greatest matches in Women's World Cup history.
For the Africans, it quickly threatened to be a repeat of the USA blowout as Brazil – led by veteran playmaker Sissi – ran out to a three-goal lead in the first 35 minutes. In disarray, the Falcons limped into half-time, where Mabo again rallied them.
“The coach told us we had to play for Nigeria, and our families and our names and ourselves," Akide said. "If we wanted the world to recognise us, this was the game."
The Nigerians came out swinging with everything they had, and the crowd was treated to a thrilling back-and-forth contest. The Falcons finally broke through in the 65th minute, and they poured in two more goals in the next 20 minutes to send the match into extra time. Stretched by a red card in the late going, Nigeria were finally felled by a 104th-minute Golden Goal worthy of the unforgettable match: a dazzling long-range free kick from Sissi into the corner of the net.
For the exhausted Falcons it was still mission accomplished Akide believed: “We went back out and just played. We didn't care about the goals. We wanted to redeem ourselvesand we did that, even though it ended with that free kick. It was sudden death then, so we had to accept that, but we were very happy. We were very proud of ourselves.
“That game was one of the best I was ever a part of for the national team because to come back from three down showed that we had something inside us. It showed that we were a team, and that we could really play.”