When Nigeria’s U-20 women’s team arrived in Canada for the first FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in 2002 (then a U-19 tournament), Akudo Iwuagwu was the youngest player in a very youthful Falconets squad. With over half of their players under the age of 18, Iwuagwu was just 15, but the striker was relatively experienced after having played in most of the side’s qualifying matches.
Not only did her dream of playing in the World Cup come true in the first match against Japan, but the youngster found the net in a 1-1 draw. “I was very, very happy when I was given a chance to play in our first-ever match at a youth World Cup. And then when I scored our first goal, it was an unbelievable feeling. The whole team was celebrating. I tried to emulate Ronaldo’s goal celebrations and was concentrating on that.”
Iwuagwu, who at the time was playing for Delta Queens, said that the goal was much more than just another goal she scored. “I feel privileged and honoured to have scored the first African goal in the event. But much more than that, the goal also set me on my further path. It was like a ticket to my future.”
And what a future it became as Iwuagwu eventually featured in ten matches in the first three U-20 Women’s World Cups. In the run-up to the upcoming event in Papua New Guinea, FIFA.com looks back at her youth team experiences and ongoing professional career.
Two years later, Iwuagwu was again in the squad as the Nigerians travelled to Thailand for the second world championship. The Falconets made the most of the experience they had gathered in Canada and stunned Brazil 3-2 with a last-gasp goal in the group phase. A draw against Italy saw them go through to the quarter-finals, where they faced eventual champions Germany.
“We were very focused to beat Germany, but then we lost on a penalty shoot-out. It is one of those things that can happen to anybody. It can happen to any team, any time, any day, anywhere,” said Iwuagwu, who played in all four matches the Nigerians contested.
The third U-20 Women’s World Cup was held in Russia in 2006 and the striker made it a hat-trick of appearances on the global stage. “I played very well. I played on the outside right and I created many of our goals. We beat Canada 3-2 and Finland 8-0 and again went through to the quarter-finals.”
This time, Iwuagwu and her team-mates were determined to win as they faced Brazil for a place in the round of the last four. “We played very well and when the 90 minutes were over, the score was 1-1. Our goalkeeper was then red-carded and five minutes into injury time Brazil scored the winner and again we were knocked out.”
After Russia 2006, Iwuagwu progressed into the Nigerian Olympic and full national team set-ups. “However, I did not make the Olympic squad and was also not in the African Championship team, so I decided that I wanted to concentrate on trying to become a fully professional player.”
In 2013, she was offered the chance to play in Israel, when FC Kiryat Gat persuaded her to sign a contract. As a regular scorer for the club, she did so well that rivals Maccabi Holon came in with an offer for her services. At the moment, the 29-year-old has decided to no longer make herself available for the national team. “I want to concentrate on playing for my club. And it is working for me. Even though I am alone in Israel and my family is in Nigeria, I enjoy being here. The standard in the league is high. But I still have a dream. And that is to play for either Arsenal or Chelsea Ladies.”
She is not worried that no longer playing for the national team will make it more difficult to be scouted by a bigger club. “Here in Israel people will see me playing. There was a team that wanted me to play for them in France, but I decided not to go as it does not suit my style. But I would be interested in going somewhere like Canada, Germany or England.”
As much as she looks forward at her career, Iwuagwu looks back at the journey that has brought her to where she is today. “When I arrived in Canada I had no idea that I would be starting on something that has taken me to here. I did not believe that one day I would become a professional player. But today, thanks to that start in Canada, I am professional player.”