My Interview with Asisat Oshoala.
Asisat Oshoala: “As much as education is important, sport is also important”
Barcelona striker Asisat Oshoala overcame the challenges of being a woman in football while growing up in a society where this was not considered to be the norm.
The cultural values of Nigeria, where Oshoala was born, differs from what some of us are used to. There is a higher expectation based on education and finding a husband, as opposed to being successful in a male-dominated profession. In many instances, finding success in jobs that are historically tailored for men is frowned upon if the priority is not singular to family values. Asisat ‘Zi’ Oshoala embraced her talent in football and decided that she would not let this skill set go to waste. This is her story, this is how she continues to break the barriers and change the narrative.
“The place I grew up (Lagos), we didn’t have the best of things. It’s totally different. It’s not what people are used to,” the 26-year-old tells The Athlet. “For me growing up, I didn’t have everything, but I was comfortable.”
Lagos is the most populous city in Nigeria with over 15 million Nigerian citizens. The city is recognised for its beautiful displays of culture but also for the apparent economic inequalities. “My parents tried to provide everything for me. They tried to put me in the best schools, but you’d have to wake up in the morning and travel far away by yourself.”
Those from a wealthier background were blessed with privileges that Oshoala did not have. “For other people when they wake up, they have their driver who takes them to school, then they come back home and they have food on the table. For us, it was not the same. After I come back from school, I have to go to my mum’s shop. I have to wait until nine to get home.”
The difficulties of travelling miles away from home was one that Oshoala faced on a daily basis coupled with the fact that she had to find a way to balance her passion for sport and her parents desire for her to excel in her education. The consensus was to focus on education without any distractions. Sport could not be the priority. Luckily for Oshoala, education was the least of her worries.
“I’m not boasting, but I was so intelligent when I was younger. My mum was always like: ‘No, you have to finish your studies, you’re going to be distracted.’ “But honestly, as much as education is important, sport is also important as well; especially for kids who are actually naturally talented. It’s just an opportunity for you to exhibit what you have, and to have fun.
“Growing up, it was pretty difficult. My mum and dad, they didn’t want me to do sports in general. Not even with football. I used to run for my school, I used to be a good athlete but they had to make me stop all of that because they wanted me to concentrate on education and learning, which actually, I think is really not good. It got to a point where they felt like, this is a natural talent for me and they’re just going to let me do it. But the stories before then, it was fire!”
Unfortunately, being a woman in football comes with a number of challenges. Oshoala reminisces on what was then a frightening experience, but is now a hilarious memory between mother and daughter.
“So, my family, every Sunday morning we would eat bread. So, every Sunday morning I’d go to get bread from the farm and there was a place where I used to play football, close to where I’m supposed to buy the bread. When I go (to the farm), I would go so early and I’d run there so I can have more time to play football. Then I’d come back home late and my mum would ask, ‘Why are you coming so late?’ and I’d say (the farm keepers) kept me waiting, as an excuse. But there was a day that I was not lucky.
“I didn’t know my mum was going to come around (to where I would go to play football on Sunday), so to cut a long story short, she caught me playing and then she took the bread from where I left it. She didn’t say anything. She just took the bread home. And then, when I finished playing, my friends were like: ‘Your mum was here.’ I knew I was dead when I got home.
“And there are some other days where when I was playing, I would ask my friends to look out for my dad because sometimes he would pass through where I used to play. When they checked and told me: ‘Your dad is coming,’ I’d just hide and when he was gone, I just continued playing the game.”
Hiding your passion from your parents is not uncommon to many young Nigerians. The beauty of sport, arts, fashion and other expressive interests is not praised by the culture – and that’s not to say that those excelling in their respective fields are not able to express themselves, but several successful footballers and musicians of African heritage, including Sadio Mane, Wizkid and Davido, had to go through the struggle of convincing their parents to allow them to do what they love. One opportunity can sway parents towards approval and inevitably change your life. As a woman in football, Oshoala had heaps of convincing to do but she found a healthy compromise by finishing her primary and secondary education and then playing football freely with the hopes of being spotted for her talent.
As a result, she had one summer to prove her talent to her parents. With her junior educational duties out of the way, she had the chance to play football before looking towards starting her senior years at school level. All she needed was one game, one opportunity. Once the opportunity arrived, fate took her to an international tournament to represent the Nigeria women’s team.
“(My parents) actually let me play because I was free at that point in time. I was always going to my mum’s shop to sell for her, so I had enough time then. I was always playing and then I got the opportunity to play for a team in Lagos. From there, I got the opportunity to play for another team in Port Harcourt (around 400 miles from Lagos state). It was actually difficult to convince my parents. Later, I got the opportunity to play for the national team. “When I went to a global international tournament, for me, it was still all fun. I wasn’t thinking anything about becoming professional. It was all fun. I was still waiting for my results for me to get into university. So my mum and dad were like: ‘Okay, just have all the fun you want to have now, once you get back to school, then that’s the end of it.’
“ My under-20s international tournament, that was the turning point. That was the point where my dad said, ‘Okay, we think you’re talented in this field. And maybe you can take it to the next level.’ The tournament changed the whole story for me. In 2014, the whole story changed for me, because that was like the best outing I’ve had with the national team. “Some of my family members actually did want me to play, especially my grandmother. She’s been so supportive. She’s the only person that every time I go to play football, I’d run to her because I know that if I run to her, my dad and my mum can’t punish me.”
Now that her parents were fully onboard with Oshoala’s desire to play football, when the opportunity arose to move abroad and play for the biggest clubs in England, it took less convincing. In 2015, Oshoala made the move to join Liverpool Women. Then club manager Matt Beard referred to her as “one of the best young players in the world”. With interest from a number of other clubs in Europe and America, Oshoala made Liverpool Women her first choice before joining Arsenal in 2016.
“I had options then and actually chose England as my first destination because it was my first time outside of the country. I had no friends there, so I decided to go to where I’ll be able to understand what they (the locals) were saying. For easier communication. My agent told me, ‘It’s best if you go to a country where you understand what they’re saying, then from there, you will get used to the European culture and then you can move to other places like France or Spain.
“I was just having fun when I was young when I went to Liverpool and then from there, I went to Arsenal. I went to Arsenal because for me, at that time, Arsenal was a bigger, better team and had a better offer. Arsenal was a bigger brand in Nigeria as well. I was really excited to join the team.”
During her time in England, Oshoala won BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year award in 2015 and helped Arsenal to lift the FA Women’s Cup in 2016. With such high praise for the young Nigerian at the time, the question of why she decided to move to Dalian WFC in China in 2017 remains up for debate. Despite having a slow start to her time at Arsenal, representatives of Oshoala made it clear that she would not be leaving the club. However, this turned out not to be the case. The general assumption is that Oshoala moved solely for the pay increase.
“The money was good, I’m not going to lie about that. The money was so good. It was more than 10 times what I had when I was at Arsenal. But then I also needed a place where I could build my confidence again, because I think I almost lost it at Arsenal. I wasn’t playing so much as I actually wanted to play, then I had the opportunity to go to China. I had the opportunity of being with a professional coach who wanted me in Paris at that time but then he said he was going to China and wanted me to come over with him.
“So, that was why I went to China, to boost my confidence. I needed to test myself again, and ask myself: ‘Do you still have it or not?’ I had to make that decision to say: ‘Okay, let me go.’ “China was like a blessing for me. I keep saying it every day. I left Arsenal for China, I knew what I wanted then. I needed a coach and an organisation who believed in me and that could actually give me that confidence and China gave it to me.”
As a woman in football, resilience is key to battling the sexist people in the world and it is also key for making decisions that are right for you. Despite the criticism, despite the rumours, Oshoala made the choice that, in the long run, was beneficial for her without listening to the influence of others.
“I always say, I don’t care about what people say. If my decision is going to help me, if I’m happy with my decision and it’s going to help my career, then so be it. I don’t care about what anyone else says. And then at the end of the day, I think I made a great decision because after the China move, everything has just been going up. So sometimes you have to go low to go high.”
Speaking of going high, Oshoala was able to prove her critics wrong and join one of the best football clubs in the world: Barcelona FC. In 2019, Barcelona signed Oshoala. What started off as a six-month loan, turned into full-blown redemption for the four-time African Women’s Footballer of the Year.
“I really wanted to stay in China, but then I had this Barcelona deal. And then I had to sit down for a couple of days, I had to think and had to call my family and ask: ‘What do you think?’ And then they told me to just give it a try. It’s just a six-month loan.” In 11 games during her loan spell, Oshoala scored eight goals for the club; thus, began talks of a permanent move.
“(Barcelona) said they wanted me to stay longer. I thought okay, I enjoyed the first six months. I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t take it. That’s one opportunity that you don’t see everyday. From China to going to one of the best clubs in the world. So, I said, yes, I was going to take it. I took it.”
Since signing her contract with Barcelona, Oshola has not failed to score over 20 goals in each season for the club. Scoring an impressive 28 goals in 30 matches in her first full season and 22 goals in 37 matches in the next. With the highs of being Barcelona’s forward, there came the lows. In 2019, Barcelona Women made the final of European club football’s biggest competition but their dream of winning the cup and bringing it to Spain was crushed by Lyon.
Last season saw the Barcelona team resume their quest for the trophy. This time their dream came true when they beat Chelsea Women in the final. In doing so, Oshoala became the first African woman to win the Champions League. Feelings of happiness and great pride were expressed by Oshoala. It has built more confidence in herself. Laughing while reminiscing, Oshoala explains, “There’s not so much someone can tell me now. The feeling is different! The only thing missing now is an international trophy at global level.”
Playing football at the highest level in three different continents is one of the pressures that Oshoala has had to face. Despite the significant cultural shifts, travelling the world has contributed to her joy of playing at such an intense level. Being able to learn the different cultural patterns and witness new things is another reason as to why Oshoala loves her job. She believes that happiness needs to be at the forefront of why you are doing what you are doing. Once you lose that happiness, it’s time to ask questions and put yourself first.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about you. It’s your job. It’s your career. You decide what you want for yourself. Nobody can force you. You have to make yourself happy, you have to put yourself first when it comes to your career, because it’s your name, it’s your legacy, not anyone else’s. You have that responsibility of taking care of yourself.”
In knowing the happiness that football brings to her own life, Oshoala wishes to use her success story to inspire many young African girls who want to be able to achieve what she has achieved. In 2015, Oshoala set up the Asisat Oshoala Foundation in Nigeria to help young girls compete regularly in football. Not only does this provide a safe space for young girls to play in the sport that they love, it also gives parents the opportunity to see their children balance their education together with playing football. Something that Oshoala herself did not have the opportunity to show her parents while growing up. Inspired by her odyssey, Oshoala explains why she decided to go ahead with this initiative.
“Sometimes I sit back and think about my journey, and I remember that I had female friends who were actually more talented than I was, but they couldn’t get into sport professionally because of the same problem I had. Either their parents were not comfortable or because of the environment. They didn’t have so many opportunities because growing up there were not so many female teams out there.
“So, I told myself if I get into this position, I will try as much as I can to create this opportunity for the younger girls that are coming up. If I’m to organise at least five different competitions a year, if I’m able to do it, I’m going to do it because I know these girls don’t even have this opportunity to compete.
“I mean, they have the professional league, which is obviously for the professional players in Nigeria, but what about the younger ones who are coming up, the grassroots players? Who’s going to help them? Who’s going to support them? Who’s going to talk to their parents to let them do sport and education together?
The Nigeria forward holds court at the Asisat Oshoala Foundation
“My foundation will always preach education and sport because I know the importance of education but sport is important as well. You don’t have to leave one for the other, there’s always a way of merging both together. So, if you want your kids to be serious in school, that’s fine. But, at the end of the day, you don’t have to kill the dream of that kid just because you want the kid to do what you want.
“This foundation is going to be there to encourage girls, to create opportunities for them to compete every year and also to give them hope and make them understand that no matter the difficulty, you can always come out of it.
“I’m going to try to hold seminars, talk with parents, convince them, make them understand that they are the first people that can actually kill or make their own kids dreams.”
From a young age, Oshoala believed that the city was not a great place to raise children. However, she used her experiences to build resilience, which made her the strong woman that she is today. A role model to several young African girls who aspire to get into football and enjoy the beautiful game in spite of the pressures from their parents. She knows that she is a role model, which she feels is of significant importance in her life.
“I’m always saying things from my heart the way it is, because if you want to talk about the bullying from your parents, I’ve had it. If you want to talk about not having support from people around you and your teachers in school, I’ve been there. I feel happy that even with my own difficulties and everything, there’s someone out there who still comes up to me and says: ‘Zi, I want to be like you. I want to be better than you.’”