Two weeks after her death, the loss of former Super Falcons star Ifeanyi Chiejine at the young age of 36 continues to baffle, both in terms of cause and reaction in Nigeria.
No cause of death has been released, and the Nigeria Football Federation previously said it had no idea she was sick, but ESPN has been told that she had been unwell for a while.
Yinka Kudaisi, who played with Chiejine, painted a sobering picture of the midfielder’s deteriorating condition from as far back as last year.
“We met at a friendly match last year organized by Coca-Cola and I wasn’t happy when I saw her,” Kudaisi told ESPN.
“She was looking so old. She told me that she has been battling with sickness. She even told me that her hair was falling off.
“I told her to come out so that her friends can see her and know what’s up with her and help her.
“After the friendly game, I reminded her again. But she didn’t come and that was the last time I saw her.”
If the fact of Chiejine’s death was sad, the lack of ceremony preceding, during, and after her funeral was even more doleful. While the press rallied to report her death, what followed was glaring in its minimalism.
The funeral itself, organized within a week of her death, was marked by the absence of top sporting officials or government representation, with next to no mention in the press of her storied but short career.
For the record, Chiejine was the first captain of the Nigeria Under-20 team, a side that won an Africa Games gold medal, and played in three Women’s World Cups and two Olympic Games.
For a player who was part of the defining moments of Nigerian women’s football, including reaching the quarterfinals of the 1999 World Cup, the lack of recognition presented a desolate look of a patriot discarded.
Chiejine is the first to pass on from that legendary Super Falcons class of ’99, which set the tone for what the team would be and has gone on to become. The core of that team had won the first African Women’s Championship in 1998 and qualified for the World Cup in 1999. The team went on to win further African titles in 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2006, and qualified for the Olympic Games again in 2004
At the 1999 World Cup, their exuberant flamboyance and talent saw them earn two group stage wins, losing only to eventual champions U.S., against whom they were impudent enough to take the lead before falling 1-7. They were knocked out by Brazil in the quarters, the South Americans winning 4-3 in extra-time.
Those two victories not only earned them a place at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, but also secured their place in Nigerian football folklore.
They were the team that established women’s sport as a serious undertaking in Nigeria, and opened the door to women’s football on the continent.
That team brought Nigeria together at a time when the Super Eagles were at the beginning of a downward slope after the heroics of 1994. The Falcons dominated African women’s football in a swashbuckling fashion never before seen, and still yet to be repeated.
Such was the heights of the bar they set that most of the players of that generation stand favorably alongside the men’s Class of 1994. Captain Florence Omagbemi is still the longest-serving captain of both national football teams.
Forward Mercy Akide set scoring records and became the first African international to play collegiate and professional football outside Nigeria, and she remains the only such player inducted into two Halls of Fame in the U.S.
Goalkeeper Ann Chiejine is the stuff of legend after competing at the 2000 African Women’s Championship while pregnant. And Nkiru Okosieme, she of football royalty — her father and brother were both internationals — was one of the most accomplished midfielders in history, playing in four Women’s World Cups and captaining the side while still a teenager.
Despite their accomplishments, members of this squad have received little or no rewards for their service. Unfortunately for them, they excelled at a time when former president Olusegun Obasanjo instituted a policy, subsequently reversed, of presidential handshakes for sporting achievements.
That meant that at the height of their powers, all they received as reward was a literal handshake and a smile, and maybe a small bonus that would be scoffed at today.
And while the current generation of players have failed to hit the dominant heights that the Class of 1999 scaled at world level, they have also been given national awards when their forebears have not been so honoured.
Chiejine is the first member of that squad to pass on, but the second of this generation, after Ajuma Ottache, who joined the team around 2004.
The circumstances leading to her death — and that of Ottache, for whom help came too late — must raise questions about what Nigeria needs to do for that generation of players. Are there any more who are suffering in silence? Are there those who need help? Rehabilitation?
A few played until they could barely walk, just so they could make a few extra dollars or Naira. Many have emigrated, including the likes of Patience Avre, Eberechi Opara, Okosieme, Omagbemi and Prisca Emeafu.
The lack of representation at Chiejine’s funeral is a lasting slight on the team, and one that must be rectified urgently. Chiejine — and other members of that team, including their coaches led by Ismaila Mabo — must be given national honors and rewarded for their service to Nigeria.
Editor’s Note: The author, Colin Udoh, is married to Mercy Akide, who is referenced in the report.