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Nigeria has a chance to make history when it faces U.S.

Nigeria will play U.S. after ups and downs in Women's World Cup

First Nigeria was the darling of this Women's World Cup, dancing and singing its way to a surprising draw with powerful Sweden, during which Nigeria's coach, Edwin Okon, knelt to pray after every goal.

Then it became the tournament's villain, with reserve defender Ugo Njoku drawing a three-game suspension following an incident in which she threw an elbow into the face of Australia's Samantha Kerr, nearly breaking her jaw.

But moving rapidly between extremes is nothing new to women's soccer in Nigeria, where the girls play with great joy and beauty — well, most of them anyway — despite the fact many have known mostly poverty and deprivation.

The team has a chance to make history Tuesday, when it meets the unbeaten U.S. in what could be a winner-take-all group-play final. For the Americans, the scenario is simple: Win the game and they win the group, assuring themselves of a much easier route to the World Cup semifinals. The odds are much longer for Nigeria, which needs a decisive victory and some help from Sweden in its game against Australia.

But then, most of the players on Nigeria's roster beat longer odds just to get here.

They have names like Precious, Perpetua, Blessing, Loveth and Desire. Two of them are teenagers and five others have yet to turn 21. One was raised in Oklahoma, but 14 others play for clubs in Nigeria, where they faced countless challenges.

All that disappears when the players take the field, though.

"That's just like an African tradition. Before the games we dance and clap and make some kinds of jokes within ourselves," forward Asisat Oshoala said. "In Nigeria that's what we do just to make sure everyone is set for the game."

Oshoala wouldn't talk about the poverty in her country, but examples of it dot the Nigerian roster.

Defender Josephine Chukwunonye, 23, grew up in a single room with her parents and six siblings. They would still be there if not for the modest salary Chukwunonye made playing for the government-run Rivers State FC and her bonuses from the national team. (Last week, Chukwunonye signed a contract with the Washington Spirit of the National Women's Soccer League.)

Forward Francisca Ordega comes from Gboko in Nigeria's southern Benue state, an underdeveloped area with a high crime rate and even higher unemployment.

And Oshoala, a 20-year-old from Lagos, was repeatedly dissuaded from playing soccer as a girl. It wasn't culturally correct, she was told. And besides, there was no support for the women's game.

But now, playing for Liverpool in the Women's Premier League, she is England's female player of the year and, many believe, the best young player to come out of Africa.

None of that can mask the tragedy of what is unfolding back home in Nigeria, though, where Africa's most populous country remains wracked by deadly ethnic and religious tensions. Its World Cup team hasn't tried to hide that. On the contrary, the team has dedicated its performance here to the 276 girls kidnapped 14 months ago by Nigeria's homegrown Boko Haram Islamic extremists group.

The tenacity the players display on the field? It's the spirit of the kidnapped girls, says forward Desire Oparanozie. And inside the team — unlike in much of Nigerian society — there are no distinctions based on faith or ethnic background; everyone wears the same uniform.

"We are one — Muslim, Christian, we serve the same God," said Ordega, who scored the tying goal in the 87th minute against Sweden. "So with that [comes] the passion, the grace. When you sing and dance, you feel the passion of God. On the field and outside the pitch.

"That gives us joy. We never have to feel pressure or tension."

But impatience? Maybe.

A nine-time African champion, Nigeria is one of seven countries to have qualified for every Women's World Cup. Yet it has advanced past the group stage only once, has won just three of 21 Cup matches overall and been outscored by 37 goals. This year it was drawn into the tournament's Group of Death with three teams ranked among the top 10 in the world — including Tuesday's opponent, the U.S., which is No. 2.

"For me it's not a group of death, it's a group of survival," Ordega said.

"It is an opportunity for us. Everyone believed that Nigeria always is knocked out in the group stage, so we all agreed on one thing: This time around, it is going to be different.

"We want to give our country another impression, not just in our country but the whole world, that we can do it."

Nigeria's electric start against Sweden, when it rallied from a two-goal deficit to earn a tie, inspired thoughts that this would indeed be the tournament in which the country finally broke through. However, the feel-good story of this World Cup was rewritten when Njoko drove her right elbow into Kerr's face in an off-the-ball incident in the waning minutes of a 2-0 loss to Australia on Friday.

Embarrassed and upset, Nigeria's soccer federation scolded the players, dampening the joy and spontaneity that had made the team so good and so much fun to watch.

But in an emotional players-only meeting Sunday, the women promised not to let the suspension be the lasting memory of Nigeria's participation in this World Cup. And on Monday, Oshoala said the players took a short walk around Vancouver, stopping to pose for pictures and sign autographs while trying to clear their minds for Tuesday.

"We should not get distracted. We need to stay together," said Pasadena's Kasia Muoto, a former national team invitee who is now Nigeria's mental conditioning coach and psychologist. "We need to dance our butts off in the tunnel and play our butts off even harder when the whistle blows to start the game.

"They are already winners, and knowing that — as well as knowing the world realizes that — should ignite them. We agreed to take our spirits to a new height and to play ball fairly, leaving everything out on the field Tuesday."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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