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Women Footballers Are Unjustly Labelled Lesbians — Uwak

Super Falcons striker Cynthia Uwak
Super Falcons striker Cynthia Uwak is not one to hide her feelings over the ill-treatment of women footballers in Nigeria. The two-time African Women’s Player of the Year talks about the poor state of the domestic league, her exclusion from the national team, lesbianism and more in this interview with The Punch.

You played at the recent Amalgamation of Nigeria Women Football Coaches All Stars tournament, a grassroots event to discover young women footballers. How would you describe the young players at the event?

The turnout was impressive; the talents and skills the girls displayed reminds me of when I started some years back. It’s not everyone that would eventually become footballers but we need to encourage them so that those who want to play don’t lose hope and feel discouraged and stop at some point.

What’s your assessment of the women’s game in Nigeria?

I’m disappointed at the league and the bad pitches; players are also owed salaries. Women football has grown past this level but I’m shocked that it’s almost in the same state it was when I was here. It means nothing’s been done. The players have to get paid. How do they survive without salaries? The women football department of the NFF needs to work harder to get sponsorship for the league. Honestly, we have a long way to go. If they had started work like five years ago, a lot of things would have been better but right now, nothing has changed at all, instead it’s deteriorating.

Do you think there is discrimination between the men and women’s game in Nigeria?

There’s always a difference in terms of salaries, provision and welfare. There’s a huge difference.

You are a two-time winner of the African Women’s Player of the Year award. But a Nigerian player and the Falcons couldn’t win the player and team awards at the last edition in Abuja. Is this a reflection of the decline of the women’s game in Nigeria?

The other African countries are fast catching up with us. Usually in the past, it was majorly Nigerian players that travelled abroad to play football but right now, a lot of African players are out there too because they want to improve their game. It shows that football is no longer one-sided and it’s a call to the Super Falcons and the officials to sit tight because things are no longer the way they were before, when we went to tournaments and won even without adequate preparations. You have to prepare because you don’t even know how the other African countries are preparing. This is a sign that a lot needs to be done.

How do you feel having been left out of the Falcons for a long time?

I must continue with my career. My career doesn’t end there, the most important thing is that I’m still very relevant, fit and doing what I know how to do best. I always cheer the players and I don’t feel bad about being left out.

But every player wants to play for their countries…

I won’t do that if I don’t get an invitation to play. So, I have to applaud any player that gets invited. The players there are representing every Nigerian and I’m proud of them.

What can you still offer the team if you get called back?

Of course I’ve still got a lot in me. I’m not done playing at the moment and I won’t tell you, ‘yes I can bring a lot to the team.’ But if it happens, what is left in me can still be seen.

How was last season at your Finnish club Aland United?

We were third in the league last year and I almost won the highest goal scorer award again. I won the September Player of the Month, Finnish Player of the Year and the Most Valuable Player awards. It’s the third time I’ll win the best player in Finland award.

Was it easy as a footballer in the beginning?

Honestly I encountered so much but I’m a lucky child. My mum’s friends told her that I’m talented and that I should be encouraged. Illiteracy might make some parents not to understand but when you have parents who are educated, it makes it easier to play football as a female. My mum actually bought me my first boots and she was the one that took me to Pepsi Academy for the first time. So, I’ll say I’m a privilege person.

What was the impression of people when they first saw you playing with boys?

Like it still is today, people will always look at you confounded but I didn’t experience that. In my case, people came out to watch me play, and they supported me. It wasn’t something special that I had to face; it was just a normal thing.

Was it easy first time you moved abroad to pursue a pro career?

It wasn’t the first time I would be travelling outside Nigeria, so I knew what I was going to face there. I had played for the U-19, U-20 and the Falcons back then, so I was exposed and I knew it was a different ball game entirely when I moved abroad. It wasn’t a problem; I just adapted and settled in.

How do you feel when women footballers are termed lesbians because of the way they look?

I wouldn’t say football makes people masculine. There are lots of players you wouldn’t even know play football. I have a lot of friends who are tomboys but they don’t play football and they look masculine; like they are into sports. People jump into conclusions because they see you dressed this way. People’s mentality is different. There are a lot of the players who wear make-up and dress feminine. I don’t like to wear make-up and that doesn’t mean it’s because I play football. Before I started playing football, I was a tomboy climbing trees and playing with boys. But these people are so blinded; they look at one side and don’t see the other side of the world. It’s not only women footballers who are like that; there are a lot of them out there who don’t do sports. I wouldn’t judge someone based on their looks or what they wear. It’s not my business to be concerned about another person’s personal life because that won’t put food on my table. If you go to boarding schools, they still say this thing (lesbianism) exists. Does it mean these people play football?

There is this impression that women footballers who move in twos are usually lesbians…

There is freedom of speech and you can’t tell people what they should or should not say. Labelling people just because they are friends is not right. Have you caught them practice lesbianism? This thing happens and it’s not like it’s new. If you play for the Falcons, then your mentality should be different. You don’t dwell on such things; I don’t allow irrelevant issues affect me because what they say won’t stop me from where I’m going. It’s a mental thing and you just have to expect people to keep talking. The energy they use in labelling female footballers lesbians, if they use it well, it will add value to women’s football. But people would rather criticise you than try to build and lift you up. I don’t let what anybody say affect me. If you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks, you will never get to your destination. You can’t change the discrimination. Majority of these people, if they ask you out and you don’t accept, they jump into conclusion and start to cook up stories.

Which is the best club you’ve played for?

Of course who wouldn’t want to be in Lyon? I enjoyed myself there and when I played in Germany.

Playing at the World Cup and Olympics is the dream of every footballer

It’s always a different atmosphere entirely playing at such competitions. When you put on your jersey and see the crowd in the stands, it’s a different feeling. I was lucky to have experienced it and I’m happy to be part of it.

Which goal do you cherish most in Nigerian colours?

It’s the goal I scored against Sweden at the 2007 World Cup. We were down 1-0 and we needed to get a point out of the game; it was an intense game and then the goal came. It settled and sealed everything. We had the momentum and the calmness to keep going in the game. I’ve had a lot of great moments but that I’ll grab at the moment.

Who is the toughest defender you played against?

There are many of them: Faith Ikhidi, Yinka Kudaisi and Christy George. When you get past them as a striker, you can beat your chest as a striker and say, ‘I’ve done well.’ They were very tough in different ways.

What are your best and worst moments?

None I can remember right now but there were the kicks and bruises. My best time was when I was nominated for the FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year award in 2007. It’s a moment I will always treasure.

What advice do you have for the up-and-coming women players?

They have to be dedicated and most importantly disciplined. You might be a good player but you won’t go far if you are not disciplined. They also have to work harder and pray as well.

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