Mercy Akide: laser focus.

Mercy Akide-Udoh is widely considered the greatest African women’s footballer in history.

Born on August 26, 1975, the former Super Falcons attacker played for clubs like Garden City Queens, Jegede Babes, Ufuoma Babes and Pelican Stars in Nigeria before continuing her professional football education in the United States.

The fearsome Akide-Udo netted almost 50 goals for Jegede Babes, in two seasons and inevitably got a call up from her country’s national selectors.

Head of the Super Falcons, Ismaila Mabo was duly impressed and made sure Akide-Udoh led the line for Africa’s dominant women’s national team.

She took part in multiple African Women’s Cup of Nations, FIFA Women’s World Cups and Olympics where she represented her country with distinction.

She is also not an unschooled mind in the complexities of coaching and between 2006 and 2008 she coached sides like Stars Soccer Club, Virginia Rush and Beach FC in Virginia Beach where she worked as the co-director of Youth Development.

Akide-Udoh sat down with SPNAfrica’s Sammy Wejinya to discuss the highs and lows of a glittering career.

Running rampant against the Koreans

When did you first get into football?

I was five years old when I first got into football. I wouldn’t say I knew what I was doing at the time but I just loved the game.

I had two brothers; Seleipiri and Ipali were very good in football at the time and I played with them

I was a tomboy and played around with older boys at my neighborhood; Bundu waterfront.

My Dad worked with the Railway Corporation and we resided at the Railway quarters.

There were so many football-loving kids around that area and there was so much street games which helped me hone my football skills at an early age.

You grew up among boys (you have five brothers). How did that influence your future as a football great and what exact roles did Seleipiri and Ipali play in your football education?

They were extremely important to my development, especially Seleipiri who played a great role in directing my path in this regard.

I remember my big break. I was a member of Garden City Queens and our club played a game against Princess Bola Jegede Babes who were on a playing tour in Port Harcourt.

I impressed in that game and I was picked to go to Lagos.

My Father was out of town at the time so the onus was on Seleipiri, as the oldest in the family to give permission for me to embark on that trip to Lagos.

It was tradition and my Mum had to take permission from Sele who was the first Son. They both prayed for me

He did even though it was hard for him as we played football together.

Sele thought about my future and believes it was best that I left for Lagos at that stage of my career.

Mercy Akida with George Weah

You regularly took part in long-distance races, like the 400m, 800m and 1500m. Was there ever a chance that you would have chosen Athletics and not football?

My PE Teacher back then knew I was gifted in all kinds of sport.

I could play table tennis, football, athletics and so many others.

I did the 400 metres, 800 metres and my favorite race of them all, the 1500 metres which I loved because I had great endurance.

The truth is, I never saw myself pursuing a career in athletics because football was everything to me even at that stage.

I still run but not professionally. Running helped me become the great footballer that I became because that is where my speed comes from.

Many do not know that you were also a regional table tennis champion. Tell us a little bit more about that aspect of your life?

I enjoyed playing ping-pong. We used to get involved in betting through ping-pong.

I used to defeat many boys back then and my brother and I would share the money from the betting proceeds (laughs).

However, just like it was with Athletics, I knew football was the thing for me and that was why I was so happy when I joined Jegede Babes.

I knew I would receive better training and would get closer to my dreams of playing for the National team because I knew I had the talent to succeed at that level.

You will not believe this but I still play ping pong for leisure when I see any table and no one ever beats me!

I am that good….Sammy, I could give you ten ahead and still beat you. Just kidding (laughs again).

Women’s football was not as popular as it is today when you were young. What were the biggest challenges you had to face as a female footballer?

It was not popular but we played the game with passion and that passion still burns to this day. We knew we were creating a path for the young ones and we did that eventually in 1999.

Nobody believes we could go as far as we did. We qualified for the first and second Olympics.

I made it to three FIFA Women’s World Cups while some others made it to four.

Social Media then wasn’t what it is today. Back then, we couldn’t just say what we wanted to. We were told what to say and if you went against those orders, you were cut from the team!

No one wanted to be made an example of such we had to embrace those restrictions even though we did not like them.

Those days, journalists would come to interview us but we could not really express ourselves because of the orders we were given.

Running rampant against the Koreans

They called you ske (skinny one) when you were young. When did you start bulking up as you became such a huge physical presence much later in your career?

(Laughs hysterically) This is a very funny question. Yes, it is true I was quite skinny back then but I was no pushover!

I was a very good dribbler and it was extremely difficult to foul and bring me down.

When I got into the national team, I started bulking up because I started lifting weights.

I started doing special exercises, climbing hills, doing a lot of pushups and slowly, I started bulking up.

So, I was not ‘ske’ anymore. Instead I became the merciless and marvelous Mercy Akide (laughs again).

Let’s talk about the clubs you represented in Nigeria before you took your skills abroad. You played for clubs like Garden City Queens, Jegede Babes, Ufuoma Babes and Pelican Stars between 1988 and 1999. Please share your highs and lows during your time at those clubs?

I played for my home town club, Garden City Queens and proceeded to Princess Jegede Babes.

When I left Princess Jegede Babes, I joined Ufuoma Babes in Delta State in Warri before joining Pelican Stars in Calabar.

However, I did not spend so long at Pelican Stars because I went to the FIFA World Cup in the United States in 1999 and got a scholarship to join Milligan College, Tennessee.

The highs? I enjoyed playing for all these clubs. They took care of me and I never sustained any serious injury.

Lows? There were lots of trips so I was homesick many times.

However, the passion I had for what I was doing meant that I was always happy in most cases.

It was during this period that Ismaila Mabo capped you for Nigeria for the very first time. What was the experience like?

First, I want to say that I am very grateful to all the coaches that I worked with. Paul Hamilton was the head coach of the National team and Ismaila Mabo was his assistant.

Mabo saw the passion I exhibited in training and matches and loved it.

I was the only new player introduced to the Super Falcons squad of 1995. The level or hard work I always showed was key to my development at that stage.

The coaches saw that I respect the game and encouraged me.

The experience of representing Rivers State and Nigeria at the 1995 World Cup was great.

I had this feeling that my dream had come true and I gave my all when I played.

You played at the 1995 FIFA Women’s World Cup for the first time as a 19-year-old in 1995 in Sweden. In Nigeria’s first game, the Super Falcons got smashed 8-0 by Norway and you were hurled off on the stroke of half time by the Nigeria head coach, Paul Hamilton. What was that experience like?

(Laughs) I will never forget that game. The World Cup in Sweden in 1995 was my first. It was overwhelming because when you get to the World Cup, it is no longer girl’s football but women’s football.

I was still a girl at the time and I went to the tournament with an ankle injury. I played only the first half of the first game because my ankle hurt so bad and it was so cold in Sweden at the time.

I had never experienced that kind of cold before and it affected the entire team and the injury I picked up didn’t help.

However, I was happy that I went to Sweden and got the experience.

There was nothing our coach could do about the results of the matches we played because the teams we faced were simply better than us, especially Norway in the first game.

The teams were better prepared than us. We learned from that experience because the Nigerian football federation made better preparations for the 1999 World Cup.

We played lots of friendly matches and went to Germany and the results were evident for all to see at the 1999 World Cup in the United States.

You know the saying; to whom much is given, much is expected.

Nigeria’s next two games included a 3-3 draw against Canada and a 2-3 loss to England but you did not play in any of those games. What was the reason for this?

It was basically because I was injured then.  I was dressed and on the bench for that game against Canada and could barely walk.

The Doctor warned that I should not be fielded in that game. For the third game, the coach asked me to warm up and I was poised to come on in the second half but he (coach) eventually changed his mind.

What were the biggest lessons you learned from that tournament?

You are going too deep now (laughs). Taking good care of your body before such a big competition is extremely important.

Also, I don’t think the Nigeria team was mentally prepared for that World Cup.

Physically, it was the same thing too. We were no match for the Norwegians who crushed us.

We had no training tour and I still think this happens in women’s football in Nigeria today and hopefully, it will change soon.

Two Nigerian referees, Bola Elizabeth Abidoye and Omoleye Adeyemi Adeola were at that tournament as Referees. Did they offer any advice to the Nigeria team?

No, they did not and that was because they were not in the same City as us.

I know Bola very well and I know that if she had met us, she would have given us good advice.

Nigeria was the dominant force in African football and won many AWCs. Why were the Falcons so overwhelmingly dominant at that stage?

This had always been the case even before I started playing for the National team.

We were more advanced then because other African countries did not have a women’s football league but we did in Nigeria.

That was the main advantage we had over other African teams but it is different now as the other countries have now started having leagues.

You scored your first FIFA World Cup goal on June 20, 1999 as Nigeria beat North Korea 2-1 in a Group A game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena in the United States. How did you feel when the ball hit then back of the net?

I was very excited!

But I had been working on those shots in camp before the world Cup so when I had that opportunity, I scored it easily because it came naturally to me.

Back then, even when we were not practicing, I will work on my own. The idea was to hit the ball again and again and again and again. For me, there was no substitute for working hard on my own, long after training.

That goal against Korea was just a reward for my hard work which eventually paid off at the biggest stage in front of the whole world.

 I indeed was very excited!

In the second game, Nigeria took a shock second minute lead through Nkiru Okosieme against the hosts the USA but the Falcons still lost that game 7-1. Why the implosion?

Too many unbelievable things happened that day. For starters, a lot of our new players had never seen that kind of crowd in a stadium before (65,080 screaming fans turned up at Soldier Field, Chicago on June 19, 1999 to see the game).

They froze when they walked into the stadium (laughs).

But Nigeria scored first in the second minute….

(Cuts in) Yes, we attached from the kickoff and one of their defenders made a mistake. Nkiru Okosieme scored.

The stadium went dead…quiet. But when they started chanting for their team, all hell let lose because the Americans didn’t want to lose to an African team and they were giving their all.

Once the Americans equalized, they did not stop scoring!

Michelle Akers was the heart and soul of that team. Florence Omagbemi was taking care of Mia Hamm but that was not enough!

And Cyndy Parlow? Oh my God! She scored a flying header.

I think they were ready to die on the pitch that day and kept coming all over us.

Even in 1999, we still were not as well exposed as we should be as a team and it showed that day in the game versus the Americans.

We regrouped after that game as we did not want to go home early.

You scored again in the decisive third group game as Nigeria beat Demark 2-0 in front of over 22,000 fans at the Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, Landover. How did the lasses prep for that game and what was the mood like before kickoff.

We had to learn from that humbling defeat to the USA. We told ourselves that we wanted to make history and were prepping ourselves all through.

We needed a psychologist in the team then but we did not have any!

As players, we had to do the job ourselves as we came together as one family to reflect on that game.

We told ourselves that we were not just Nigerians but Africans and that we wanted to make the continent proud.

The idea was to leave a legacy behind. We prayed and worked extremely hard in training.

On the day of the game, as the coaches were prepping us, the team secretary, Lizzy Onyenwenwa (now late) told us to pack our things as there would be a Van waiting to take us to the Airport from the Stadium!

When she said that, I said to myself that I would not leave the United States that day.

I looked around and saw that my teammates were all saying the same thing!

Everyone was fired up….we were like Lions!

We won the game against the Danes and I scored.

When we got back to the hotel, we saw the Van that was waiting to take us to the Airport but we knew we would not board the vehicle.

We were singing and shouting and dancing.

I couldn’t even go for Dinner that night because I was overcome with emotion.

Everyone still talks about that exciting and dramatic quarter final game against Brazil with over 54,000 screaming fans in Landover. Sissi’s Golden goal saw the Falcons eliminated 4-3. Talk us through your emotions all through that game.

(Laughs). There was a lot of emotion before that game. We knew the Brazilians were an excellent team and had a lot of respect for them.

We however came into that game without any fear. We did not play well in the first half and they were 3-0 up at the break!

When we got to the locker room, it was crazy. The coaches were yelling, the officials that were attached to the team were talking and I couldn’t even tell at that time who was the coach or an official!

It was impossible to tell whop to listen to as there was near commotion in the changing room!

Prisca Emeafu was crying because the coach singled her out as the player who was out of position thereby allowing the Brazilians a free route to goal.

I was also attacked for not scoring and accused for been too slow when in possession.

The payers however rallied round Prisca and told her we were all to blame as it was a team sport.

Florence Omagbemi then brought us all together at the side of the room, away from the officials and coaches.

She said to us to leave our last drop of sweat and blood on the pitch in that second half and strive to qualify for the Olympics.

We all said we wanted to go to the Olympics as that was our dream.

Patience Avre then came to me and screamed my nick name, “Meme! Wake up!!!”

Then, our goalkeeper, Ann Agumanu-Chiejine also came to me and screamed, “Where is the Akide that I know?”

I laughed and told her everything will be fine in the second half.

Nkiru Okosieme, Kikelomo Ajayi, Yinka Kudaisi and the other were all shouting. We were extremely fired up.

We scored the first goal of the second half and it was Emeafu that scored it!

Then we scored a second and a third.

We were pushing for the third goal because we saw that the Brazilians were tired.

At that stage, the referee sent off Patience Avre and our goalkeeper, Agumanu-Chiejine got hurt.

Their heroine, Sissi then scored that free kick. For me, Sissi is the best female Brazilian footballer of all time. Her free kick was amazing.

When she was going to take that free kick, I said to myself, “we are done!”

I looked away and Sissi will always be Sissi….she bent it in!

Then we went to the locker room and the news filtered in that because we drew in regulation time, we were going to the Olympics!

The jubilation was something else. People were shouting, hugging, and crying tears of joy. At that stage, we didn’t care too much that we lost because the dream was to go to the Olympics.

That moment will stay with me for the rest of my life.

What did the Super Falcons’ brilliant performance in the USA in 1999 do for Women’s football in Nigeria?

What we did at the World Cup in 1999 changed everything about Women’s football in Nigeria.

I know we still have a long way to go but the feeling was that if there investment in the footballers, they could achieve great things.

It wasn’t just about Nigeria but in Africa.

It was an amazing time for all Nigerian female footballers because the feeling then was that if we could do it, they could do it as well.

Other players are now carrying on our legacies because we were their role models. We did not bring the trophy home but that (qualifying for the Olympics) was a trophy for us.

After the World Cup that year, you signed for Milligan College/Hampton Roads Piranhas. How did that deal come about?

My superlative performance at the World Cup opened the doors for me to go to Milligan College.

My teammate at the time, Florence Omagbemi was also at Milligan College and was in touch with the coaches.

I wanted to go to Italy at the time but my Parents were extremely apprehensive about the idea.

I did my research too and found out that they did not really have a professional league in the country at the time.

It was a situation where you would play for a club and then go to work afterwards.

I wasn’t looking to do that kind of stuff; I just wanted to be a professional football player.

I eventually ended up at Milligan College because I wanted to go to School as well.

It was a great experience and after that, I went to play for the Hampton Roads Piranhas (W-League).

I then got drafted to play in the Professional League when WUSA, the USA’s first ever professional women’s football league was founded.

I played for San Diego Spirit.

What were the major differences between the Nigerian league and the American league and how did you cope?

Huge difference. I didn’t have a driver’s license because I didn’t have a car. We were not well-paid so I could not afford a personal car. If we wanted to go for matches or training, we had to do it in hired Buses!

In the United States, I signed a big contract and the club officials helped me to get an apartment and got settled in.

I didn’t have a car so I would hitch rides from my friends.

Then I started making the first team and those friends who were giving me rides stopped because they became envious!

However, I did not let that affect me. My apartment was 15 minutes away from the training ground so every morning, I would jog to the pitch and would get there even before those who owned cars!

Many times, my coach would see me jogging to the training ground with my back pack; I didn’t know this though until one day he pulled me aside and asked me why I always jogged and did not drive to the training ground like the other girls.

I said I loved the exercise but also added that since I had no car of my own, I had no choice that to jog to the training ground.

He was shocked and said he had never seen a footballer as dedicated as me.

My paycheck was very regular in the States unlike what it was like when I was still in Nigeria. It was deposited every two weeks into my account.

In Nigeria, we had to beg the owner of the club to pay us or we asked friends and family to send us some money.

The infrastructure in the States was also great unlike what we have in Nigeria. The pitches were amazing.

I have so many bruises on my body because of the kinds of pitches I played in in Nigeria but I think that is what made us who we are because you have to love the game to be able to play in that kind of environment.

Between 2001 and 2002, you played for the San Diego Spirit before ending your playing career at the Hampton Roads Piranhas in the W-League. Share your highs and lows.

I loved playing professional football a lot so I can’t really say I had lows. The only lows maybe were the periods were the periods when I had to spend so much time away from those I really care about; my family.

There were times when I was away for as much as two years because of football but then I knew I had to do what I had to do.

After I had my first baby, Coleen (my trophy baby), I returned to football but realized that each time we were losing a game, I was never happy.

The fans and my teammates noticed that I was no longer into it the way I was previously before I had Coleen.

My baby was in the stands then when I played and many times, I would hear her cry so much with the baby sitter failing to pacify here.

I began to wonder if it (my decision to continue playing) was worth it.

I continue playing until I had my second child and then decided that I was done.

However, I wanted to remain in the game and had already started my coaching career in Atlanta before becoming to Virginia.

Four years after that brilliant 1999 World Cup, you were back in the USA with the Falcons but finished bottom of Group A following heavy defeats to Noth Korea, the USA and Sweden. What went wrong in 2003?

Our coach was changed. Please don’t ask me why because I don’t have the answer! When we got to the World Cup, I discovered that we did not have such a great bond as we had in 1999.

The camp was not the same and it is still not the same till now.

The Girls were not taken care of the way they were in 1999.

There was a big difference and we, the veterans of the team, tried to do what we could.

It didn’t feel like I was at the World Cup. I wish I could say more but I rather wouldn’t.

You were the most experienced player in the team alongside captain, Florence Omagbemi (both of you were 28 years old at the time). What did you tell the younger and less experienced players before, during and after the tournament?

I told them to work hard and believe in prayers. I love God and I believe that I am what I am today because of God. However, God says there is no food for a lazy Man!

So I tell the girls there is no substitute for hard work.

I also tell them to respect the game. Nobody is bigger than this game. I have never seen anyone

Former players like Pele, Zinedine Zidane, Steven Gerrard, Thierry Henry never played the game forever.

I tell the girls that they will not play the game forever and that they should use their time well; leave a legacy and leave a footprint so that others will follow in their footsteps.

I tell them to stay humble and be kind and also….smile!

That was your last World Cup with Nigeria. You would have been 32 during the next edition in China. Don’t you think you took a bow too early?

To be honest, I wanted to go to that World Cup but I got married. A year before the world Cup, I became pregnant and there is no way I would have thrown away the blessing of God because I want to go to the World Cup.

That child is 13 years old today. That child is a trophy that no Man can buy with money.

The emotions were bitter sweet for me because I wanted to go to the World Cup but I was also very happy that I was about to bring my baby into the world.

Now let’s discuss the Olympics. What were your highlights and lowlights?

The Olympics is different from the World Cup. You get a chance to meet different Athletes from different sports from different countries around the world.

My first Olympics was in Sydney, Australia. I met Serena and Venus Williams during my second Olympics. I took a photo with them which I treasure to this day.

I met Lionel Messi too.

The Olympic Village was amazing too. Great memories.

What have you been up to since you retired?

 I went into coaching. I am full time coach and a full time Mum. I have coached three different clubs.

I coached with Beach FC at Virginia Beach for nine years and I left them and went Rush Soccer club in Virginia and my current club is Still United. I am also a Director at the Football club.

I am also the head coach of Regent University College in Virginia.

There have been a lot of talk that you could follow in the footsteps of your former teammate and friend, Florence Omagbemi and coach the Falcons. Any truth in that?

I am Mercy and Florence is Florence. If the opportunity comes, yes.

If it is right for me to take it, I will take it but I am not the kind of person that will lobby or beg to get anything.

I have worked extremely hard to get all I have today.

If they (the Nigeria Football Federation) believe that I can deliver and they reach out to me, and I see that the contract is good, then who am I to say no?

I want to have an opportunity to serve my country but if that opportunity does not come up, I know that God has a big plan for me.

I know that one day, I will coach one of the national teams in the world….

Meeting another GOAT? Akide with Ronaldo
Mercy Akida with George Weah