Soccer

Nigeria keeps the faith and ties Sweden, 3-3

In Women's World Cup, Nigeria earns 3-3 tie with Sweden and emerges as a Cinderella team

The Women's World Cup is only three days old, but already a Cinderella team has emerged.

Cinderella, you'll remember, was a likable if tenacious underdog who played a little over her head. And that description certainly fits the national team from Nigeria, which rallied to tie heavily favored Sweden, 3-3, in the group-play opener for both teams Monday.

There's very little not to like about these Africans. They're fast, creative, tireless and animated. Oh, and after they score, the coaches and most of the players kneel and pray.

"Prayer is a key," said Coach Edwin Okon. "The Nigerian team is a praying team. To tell God thank you."

Okon should also thank God for players like 20-year-old Asisat Oshoala and 21-year-old Ngozi Okobi, who scored Monday's second-half goals, then wondered what all the fuss was about.

Nigeria came into the tournament having been given little chance to advance out of pool play — or even to win a game while there, something it has done just once in its last three World Cups. It is the only country in its four-team group — which includes Australia and the U.S., in addition to Sweden — that is outside the top 10 in the FIFA world rankings.

Not that it mattered.

"We don't think about the ranking," said Okon, whose team is 33rd in the FIFA poll. "We don't think about whether they are No. 1 and we are No. 90. We don't look at that.

"We look at what you do on the pitch with the ball and without the ball. And we try to match you, strength to strength."

There's one other thing Nigeria shares with Cinderella: Neither was surprised by their success. Which is why Nigeria, which has reached the second round just once in six previous World Cups, is hoping to stay at the ball a little longer this year.

"More is yet to come," a confident Okobi promised. "To beat Sweden, that is what I had in mind. And I know that's what all the players and the coaches had in mind."

Ready for prime time

Approximately 1.8 million Canadians watched the host country's opening-game victory over China on television Saturday, making it the country's most-watched Women's World Cup match ever.

The audience peaked at 2.6 million in overtime, when Christine Sinclair knocked home a penalty kick for a 1-0 victory.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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