Super Falcons midfielder Deborah Abiodun tells ’TANA AIYEJINA about her sending off against Canada at the Women’s World Cup, making her debut in US football, her humble beginnings and more, in this interview
Where were you when you learnt that you were included in the squad to the 2023 Women’s World Cup?
I was actually in the United States. I was in school already, trying to adjust to Pittsburg and my summer classes when I learnt I was included on the World Cup list. I felt more than excited, I was so grateful. I was sleeping but I had a couple of messages on my phone. I had so many missed calls and friends kept calling to tell me that I made the list. I was so excited, I mean, it’s something I’ve always dreamt of. I’m grateful to God and everyone that believed in me and made it possible for my name to be on the list.
After featuring at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, how do you feel making your debut on the biggest stage of women’s football?
It’s a feeling words can’t actually justify, I mean words are not enough to describe how I feel playing on the biggest stage of women’s football. It’s the highest level and every player out there wants to be on the stage and my feeling is a lot more than I can explain, I feel so great. It just felt like everything was happening fast and I was like ‘okay, I’m just going to do what I know how to do and just go out there and express myself on the field’ because this is something I’ve been doing for a long time and one of the best things I love doing in this world. So, I told myself, ‘just go out there and express yourself.’ It’s a dream that I’ve always wanted to accomplish in life. So, that’s it, that’s how it was like for me making my debut on the biggest stage of women’s football.
You had a great game in the Falcons opener against Canada but got sent off. What was going through your mind when you were flashed a red card?
Actually, after the referee gave me a yellow card, I was wondering what happened, like it happened so fast, like three seconds, it just happened so fast. Then she was called, she stopped the game, she was going for the VAR check. In my mind, I was thinking ‘okay, maybe she wants to reverse the yellow card’, and the next thing I saw on the big screen was a red card. My heart stopped beating at that point, for like two seconds. I think it should be one of the scariest moments of my life. I was so scared of what was going to happen. It was my first game and I was getting a red card and I didn’t want to be the reason the team would eventually lose the match because everyone had put in all their efforts. And we were getting to that point where we felt we could actually leave with a point and all of a sudden I got a red card, which meant my team was going to be a man down. It would have been heartbreaking if we had lost that match, so, at that point I really felt bad. I was so scared and I could not continue watching the match. I did not want Canada to score us because we had put in a lot of work to get to that point and to get that result.
When you learnt you were no longer eligible to play until the quarter-finals, how did you feel?
After I missed the next game against Australia, I was hopeful that we were going to qualify. I was like, ‘okay, one more to go.’ I was so excited, you know, because it’s not easy not even being among the team on the match day, not being with the team in general, just kind of being isolated, it wasn’t easy for me at all. Then after learning that I was going to miss the third match, I felt really sad, it felt like the heartbreak was renewed, it was a fresh injury again. I had to be strong and regardless, the team was doing well and I got a lot of encouragement from officials, from players and their supportive prayers and even from back home. My family was there for me. And the good thing is the team was still doing well, so, I still kept my hope very high and I’m very proud of the team.
Most analysts feel Falcons should have reached the final of the World Cup. How did you feel when the team lost to England on penalties in the last 16?
Yeah, we also believed we had a spot there and we were not just a team, we were more like a family with an unbreakable bond. We were so strong on and off the field, the love and unity, everything was there. Everyone was ready to contribute all they had to make the team pass through every stage and it’s a lot of work, a lot of hard work, a lot of effort, a lot of determination, everyone playing and not playing, everyone was just with that positive mindset and we were all just so determined and bonded together as a family, as sisters, we were there for each other, everyone was supporting each other in every way we could. So, after we lost to England through penalties, I was sad because all our hard work and everything had come to an end but regardless, I was so proud, I am still very proud of the team, the family, everything we experienced and shared. It was such a great experience for me personally and the way we played as a team, even in training and everything, it was such a good vibe and it’s something I would want to thank everyone for their individual efforts, bringing everything they had to the table. I watched the game from the area covered with glass, it was such a great and wonderful performance from the team. You know, I could feel the pain, we played with everything, played so well, but we were just so unlucky that we didn’t win. So, I was pained because that was one of our best games against a country like England, we dominated and did everything but unfortunately we lost through penalties, and of course, if we had scaled through to the quarter-finals, that would have been my opportunity of joining the team back, you know, and being amongst the team. But it is what it is. Regardless, I’m still very proud of myself, the whole team and everyone. I thank everyone for their prayers and support. It was such a great experience, lessons learned, everything. It was such a great time.
You played at the U-20 World Cup, helping the Falconets reach the quarter-finals. How would you compare the U-20s and the senior World Cup?
Yeah, I would like to say playing the U-20 World Cup in Costa Rica is quite different from that of the senior World Cup, the environment, the reception, the pace, the fans. It’s quite different with that of the U-20 World Cup. This is the biggest stage, the U-20 is just like preparing us for the biggest stage. It’s still football, but it’s a different ballgame.
Nigerian parents usually kick against their female kids playing football. Did your parents stop you from playing football?
Definitely, but I’m not going to blame them for that. In my own case, it was not easy at first. I’m the only female child in my family, so it was so difficult to actually convince my mother to allow me play football. I remember several times she was going to kick against me playing football. It wasn’t easy for her too because I’m her only female child. You know, watching your only female child playing football and always being among guys, it’s not really an easy one to just allow like that. But I had to continue doing what I loved. But I received a lot of punishments for staying out late playing football. After a lot of persuasion from our friends and people around, who tried to talk to her and tell her I was good, it still took a lot to convince my mother to let me play football. But now she’s happy I’m doing what I’m doing and she’s proud of me, that’s the most important part and everyone is happy now. I’m just grateful I wasn’t discouraged after everything I actually went through. And because I grew up among guys, my brothers were always out playing football, doing one sport or the other, I was always among guys engaging in different sports. It’s either I’m playing football or I’m playing video games that have to do with football or I’m talking football. So, my entire life has been about sports in general.
After the World Cup, you made your debut for Pittsburg against Drexel in the US, playing for 39 minutes after coming off the bench and giving an assist for the fourth goal. How will you describe your debut in US football?
Yeah, after the World Cup, coming back to Pittsburgh was an amazing experience. They welcomed me back, everyone has been so friendly. I’ve had an amazing stay, I’ve been able to blend with some of their system here, because coming from Nigeria to school here, I wasn’t actually expecting an easy task. It’s a different system entirely from where I’m coming from, both football-wise and school-wise, but everyone has been so nice, and they’ve actually helped me in many ways. The standard of football in Pittsburgh and in the US exceeded my expectations because college football here (US) is very competitive which is something I really like. The players are very good and the officials, the coaching crew make one comfortable. It’s easy to actually acclimatise with a system where they meet up with your requirements as a player and everything is going on smoothly, even with my classes and soccer. They make sure you do not miss classes, they just have a way to balance everything.
What were your initial challenges when you started playing football?
My initial challenge my parents. Like I said earlier, my mother didn’t want me to play football at first, and I don’t blame her because she had her reasons. I could understand her, but that was my number one challenge. And number two challenge was not seeing a lot of female teams around. I was always training with guys, just guys, just guys around, there was difficulty seeing a female team. Number three was getting the right training pitch to train and also getting boots and training kits. I was lucky I got teams that even though were male teams, the coaches supported me because I’m female. They would get me boots and balls but I think the major challenge was not having a lot of female teams around to actually play with and I had to travel miles to see good female teams to train with.
Who was your role model footballer while growing up?
Growing up, I had a big role model from childhood because I always watched my brothers and guys around playing football. I really liked it and always wanted to be amongst them playing. So, my first role model was my brother, I enjoyed watching him play. For female players, I like players that are tough, always business-minded on the field even when there’s no money involved, I just like players that put in everything into the game. A player like Marta of Brazil was such an inspiration to most of us. Nigerian female midfielders are so good, they put in effort. I was so excited, especially during the 2019 World Cup, I was so happy. I sent most of them messages, even though I knew some were not going to reply or read my messages, I sent Instagram messages to senior players like Evelyn (Nwabuoku), Halimatu (Ayinde), (Ngozi) Okobi, Onome (Ebi), Francisca (Ordega). I was like, ‘oh, God bless you for doing what you’re doing for Nigeria, God will continue to strengthen you people.’ I was so happy to see them represent their country with such zeal and passion, so, I like most of them. Also my role model, I like Cristiano Ronaldo very well, we might not be playing the same position, but I just love his training mindset, he’s a very hardworking player and he makes me think like you shouldn’t be over comfortable in life, no matter where you are, just keep working, keep working. You can always go further if you keep working, I really love Cristiano Ronaldo.
What are your best and worst moments as a footballer?
I have a lot of best moments but my best was making my first appearance for the Falcons. That is my best moment in football, the atmosphere was so amazing. My worst moment was also getting a red card against Canada in my first match at the World Cup. That is also the first time I got a red card in my life. I’ve never gotten a red card playing football, so it was really hard for me. Outside football, the worst moment was when I lost my kid brother, I was in a competition also playing football, may he rest in peace.