Ayegba, Nigeria's breakthrough goalkeeper 

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Rachael Aladi Ayegba made a huge success in Europe by winning the Finnish Naisten Liiga title with PK-35 Vantaa in 2013, making her the first African female goalkeeper to enjoy such breakthrough abroad.

During her active 11-year spell in Finland, she has enjoyed stints at Kokkolan Palloveikot, Kuopion Palloseura, GBK Kokkola and notably with PK-35 Vantaa, where she won a couple of domestic titles and also competed twice in the UEFA Women's Champions League.

At the international level, she made her debut against Namibia in 2001 and was a member of the Super Falcons squad at the 2006 and 2008 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (then African Women's Championships), as well as the 2007 Women's World Cup in China and African Games in Algeria same year.

Having retired in 2016, 'Baruwa' as she is nicknamed, who locally played for Oladimeji Tigress and Ufouma Babes, FCT Queens of Abuja, and Edo Queens in Nigeria before her move to Finland in 2005 has since ventured into coaching. Since taking to coaching, she has gone on to acquire UEFA A Goalkeepers License, while serving for three years as a player/coach at GBK.

Nigeria boasts of numerous female goalkeepers, including Precious Dede but the 34-year-old, who is renowned for her lanky, fiery attitude, and composure in one-on-one situations, was one of a few that made it out of Africa and she prides herself as being a shining light for the next generation.

In an exclusive interview, she spoke to CAFOnline.com about her football journey, family support, and the motivation to become a coach, among others. Below are excerpts;

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CAFOnline.com: How did your journey into football started?

Rachael Ayegba: I was exposed to playing football as a child. The only option I had for a recreational activity was to play football with my dad and brothers whilst growing up in a community in Delta State, Nigeria, where my father served as was also a Police Officer. I was also interested in volleyball and handball, and participated in minor games that were part of the school curriculum for sports. Most of the time, I had to play with my brothers at home, which made football more dominant.

How supportive were your family to your career?

My family has been the bedrock of support for me during my career. They have always been there for me from the outset, and all through the obstacles and victories encountered during my career. It’s been an honour for me to make my dad’s wish of playing for Nigeria at the highest level come to pass.

"It was such an unexpected opportunity for me but I grabbed it with both hands and am glad how things have turned out" Rachael Ayegba

How did you break into the star-studded national team, Super Falcons?

I participated in a youth competition that took place in Lagos. I represented Bauchi State because I did not make it to the Lagos State team, and ended up emerging the best goalkeeper in that tournament. Two coaches namely Daniel Evumena and George Emenetie invited me to join (defunct) Ufuoma Babes, which was then one of the biggest clubs in Nigeria. With some rapid signs of progress I made in the game, I joined Inneh-Queens (now Edo Queens) of Benin City, where I played until I was invited to the Super Falcons camp for the first time in 2001. I remembered then that my first game was against Namibia in a friendly played in Windhoek under then-coach Peter Egudia.

How did you make it to Europe as a goalkeeper?

I was on the squad for 2003 African Games held in Abuja; unfortunately I got injured in camp. However, that was when I met my then-agent, who informed me of a club offer in Finland which needed a goalkeeper, and I decided to take the opportunity to explore the terrain of women’s football in Europe. It was such an unexpected opportunity for me but I grabbed it with both hands and am glad how things turned out.

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What were your major challenges while developing your football passion?

As a young girl going away from my family to join a football club was emotionally tough, but with the support of my family, I was able to overcome that obstacle. An ankle injury sustained during a national team camp was a major challenge. It set me backward and I had to undergo treatment and recovery which lasted over six months. A minor challenge I also face at the early stage of my experience in Europe was the change in weather, cultural difference and language. With the of my club, I was able to learn and integrate into my new environment.

Why did you decide to venture into coaching after your retirement?

During the later stages of my club career, I realized I had huge passion for coaching and sharing experiences and ideas with the youth. I embarked on acquiring the required UEFA B and UEFA Goalkeeper A licenses, and concurrently being a head coach cum player of GBK in Finland, during which I gained a lot of experience about various issues related coaching, and managing relationship with club management and the public.

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As a certified coach, what are your aspirations in your new journey? 

The women's game has evolved a lot, as several ideas, skills, tactics and technology have been introduced into the game. The way the game is perceived and played globally has changed a lot compared to the early days of my career. As an optimistic and open-minded person, I would not say no to any opportunity that might come my way anytime in the future. However, based on my experience and involvement in the game and journey over the world, my passion for sharing knowledge with youths, and giving back to society, I would accept such a challenge as an opportunity. In terms of the difference I hope to make, I can confidently say that my international experience as a goalkeeper and coach has taught me a lot, to let the young players understand the way football has changed over the past few decades in terms of tactical and technical skills, understanding situations, opponents, analytics, data collection and exploitation.

Photos@Rachael Ayegba