ANEHO, Togo: It is a scene played out in football all over the world every day: a team huddles together in the tense minutes before kick-off of a crucial match.
But Ayao Adjoa, captain of FC Athleta, and her teammates are making a small piece of history by playing in Togo’s first official women’s football championship.
“It’s a great pleasure for me to play the championship and my only dream is to become a great football star like Emmanuel Adebayor,” says Adjoa, who is just 17, referring to the veteran Togo striker, an icon in African football.
The players — nicknamed the Spikes by their small but dedicated legion of enthusiastic Togolese fans — were singing and dancing in a corner of the old municipal stadium of Aneho, about 50km east of Togo’s capital of Lome.
Sixteen clubs are participating in the months-long championship held in stadiums across the West African country of seven million people.
As encouragement to participate, each club received a grant of 500,000 CFA francs (760 euros) from the national federation.
The goal is to revive Togo’s defunct women’s national team.
“If men can’t bring back the cup to the country, then we will try it with women,” said Christine Mana Dzodope, chairwoman of the women’s football commission, referring to Togo’s disappointing results in the last Africa Cup of Nations.
The Togolese Football Federation (FTF) had long promised a women’s championship but, overwhelmed by corruption scandals, it had until now failed to launch it.
Internal wrangling triggered Togo’s top-flight football to be suspended in late 2014.
FIFA gave Togo a red card, sacking embattled federation president Gabriel Ameyi and setting up a “normalisation committee” structure to manage daily affairs and organise new elections.
Both men and women suffered as for two years, no matches took place in Togo.
Organising this championship was a goal — and FIFA stipulation — for the new leaders of the FTF, who were elected in February 2016 following the protracted crisis that rocked Togolese football.
With the new and improved federation up and running, games are finally getting under way.
Six months after the men’s championship started, now it’s the women’s turn to lace up their boots and take to the pitch.
The first objective is to get the women playing, explains Dzodope. “The second is then to form a national team.”
In many countries on the continent, women’s football still isn’t taken seriously and can be subject to prejudice.
Last year, a senior Nigeria Football Federation official blamed the women’s poor performance on their alleged homosexuality, saying “lesbianism kills teams.”
But last Saturday at the match in Togo, the fans were enthusiastic and impressed by the quality of the game.
“I am very proud to see our girls play football,” says Arnaud Kodjovi, a big Spikes fan.
“The federation must not skimp on the means to support the teams involved in this championship, because the show is very pleasant,” said a spectator, wearing a yellow t-shirt that read “Fan Club Adebayor” in reference to the men’s star national striker.
A few weeks before the start of this competition, several women’s clubs have stepped up their training sessions in small stadiums and even on the beach.
Some clubs have even temporarily hired coaches from first division Togo teams to boost the performance of the women.
“I am very proud when I’m playing,” says Nassara Samira, FC Athleta player.
“I am always very happy when I see on television girls from other countries playing football like boys.”