VANCOUVER, British Columbia – For Nigeria’s women’s national soccer team, the word “inclusive” has different meanings.
Nigeria is a deeply faithful team, praying in small groups on the field before beginning warm-ups for each match and dropping to their knees to do the same following goals they score. Reporters were held from viewing the start of Monday’s practice until the team was done with an on-field prayer session. The faith is part of “tradition” in Nigeria, coach Edwin Okon says.
“Nigeria wants to add God to everything,” he said last week when I asked him about the team’s faith. “We are very serious about it. And we don’t joke with it once the name of God is mentioned in that particular thing, because the name of the Father, God, has been mentioned. And the players are aware of this. Everybody in Nigeria is aware of this.”
Forward Francisca Ordega said last week that Christians and Muslims on the team pray together. But the country is divided, the North predominantly Muslim and the south mainly Christian.
“We believe in God. We worship,” she said last week. “We are all Christians – well we have Muslims among us, but we believe and so we are one. Muslim, Christian, nothing – we serve the same God.”
“Same songs. We say the same prayer.”
But whether or not lesbian players are allowed on the team remains unclear.
It is illegal to be involved in homosexual behavior in Nigeria, punishable by up to 14 years in prison according to a law passed last year.
A source tells Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl that at least two players who would be on the team for the 2015 World Cup are not because they are thought to be gay.
“If a player comes out and says, ‘I’m gay,’ then the trouble doesn’t just start and end with the player,” the source tells Wahl. “It goes all the way back to the family: parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, everything. One person just sparks off a chain reaction. That’s why it’s so tough.”
Asked about the topic in a press conference on Monday, Okon said he does not address sexuality within the team.
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘homosexual,’ he said. “I don’t deal with personal lives. I think of the game proper. I don’t think of my players. I only think of what they do on the pitch. That is what concerns me.”
Four years ago, the Nigerian Football Federation was investigated by FIFA after Uche Eucharia detested homosexuality as a “dirty issue,” and “spiritually, morally very wrong.”
Homophobic attitudes remain entrenched in Nigerian culture. It is unclear if any players have been left off the team because of their sexuality. The federation denies any such doing, according to Wahl. Players and coaches, often guarded about on- and off-field manners, won’t discuss the topic.
They will very happily discuss their faith, however.
“The passion, the grace – when you sing and dance, you feel the passion of God,” Ordega said. “You see everything just turning around, even on the field of play and the pitch, even outside the pitch. You see yourself, you see God, the Spirit. I don’t even know how to express it, but that gives us joy. That gives us the spirit.”