The first stroke of lightning fell as the teams from Nigeria and the United States sang the national anthems. And then came the sound of thunder, and a deluge at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai. Immediately, the teams were ushered back to the dressing rooms and would only come out two hours later to play the first quarterfinal of the Fifa U17 Women’s World Cup.

It was a long wait, but the Nigerians didn’t mind it. They knew the storm would actually be on the pitch when the match started, when they came across the Americans – powerhouses in the women’s game, especially at the senior level.

But the African team held their own, refused to be dominated, and eventually won 4-3 in the penalty shootout after playing out the 90 minutes at 1-1, to make it to the semifinal at the U17 women’s World Cup for the first time.

“We wanted to wrap up the game in the 90-minute duration, but the Americans were tough, it was difficult for us,” said Nigeria’s coach Bankole Olowookere, later in the mixed zone.

But there was some drama in the shoot-out, when Miracle Usani’s shot was saved by Valentina Amaral, only for the Video Assistant Referee to deem the goalkeeper had illegally left her line. The shot was retaken and the 15-year-old slotted home. A few kicks later, Nigeria was through.

In the last minute of regulation time Olowookere changed his goalkeepers keeping the shoot-out in mind (there was no extra time). That substitution, he asserted later, was all he did when it came to the shootout.

“Before the penalties, I just told the players to remember what we did in training yesterday,” he said in the mixed zone after the match.

“I told them, I was not going to choose who will take the shots. You go if you want to take the kick. They picked their penalty takers themselves. I allowed them to take that decision. If you believe in yourself, I allow them to go and play. I let them do this on their own. To give them their own balance of wisdom.”

Amidst the spotlight of the World Cup, Olowookere was clear that there was always the ulterior motive of making sure the U17 players go on to become senior players. Allowing them to make decisions in the shootout, he said, was their first step towards the big leagues.

And when Chikamso Jiwuaku did make the all-important save off Riley Jackson’s penalty, and Omamuzo Edafe scored the final spot-kick, the Nigerians stormed the pitch in celebration.

They were the underdogs on the night, and while the Americans did have the better share of possession and got more shots on goal, the Nigerians refused to be completely dominated.

They matched USA when it came to physicality, soaked in the pressure of facing wave after wave of attacks, and then turned towards Opeyemi Ajakaye on the right flank and Amina Bello on the left to provide swift counters.

The opening goal came in the 27th minute when VAR determined that Bello had been brought down inside the box and Edafe converted the resulting penalty.

Thirteen minutes later, Amalia Villarreal equalised for the Americans, but only after Lauren Martinho hit the post.

The Americans had a solid chance in the 83rd minute, when Onyeka Gamero stormed down the left, rounded the goalkeeper but saw her shot cleared off the line by the backtracking Usani.

But Olowookere wouldn’t mind seeing his team go through in as nerve-wracking a fashion as the shootout, as long as their long journey went on.

This World Cup was originally expected to take place in 2020, and the team he had set for that event were overaged due to the delay caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It was back to the drawing board for the coach.

“I started again to look for players, and we found a pool of 75, then trimmed it down to 25,” he explained.

“Before the World Cup, if one wasn’t doing well, they’d be replaced by someone from outside, but still kept in the system. Elimination by substitution, but we tell them ‘Don’t worry, your time will come.’ I don’t want them to get depressed.”

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On Friday, the team was far from discontent, as they celebrated their way down the mixed zone and through to the dressing rooms.

But the work is not done yet, Olowookere said.

Nigeria made it past Group B as runner-up to Germany – having won against Chile and New Zealand. Now that they’ve gone past USA – a team arguably a pre-tournament favourite – they’ve reached where no previous U17 women’s team from their country has. Nigeria had reached the quarter-finals at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup three times in a row from 2010 to 2014 and were so close to reaching the semi-finals on two of those occasions. In Navi Mumbai, it finally became a reality.

They next take on Colombia in the semifinal.

A little closer to the big league.