Shortly before she was hired in 2009 as the first female coach of Nigeria’s powerful women’s national soccer team, Eucharia Uche said at a seminar that she was troubled by the presence of lesbians on the squad, calling it a “worrisome experience.”
FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, states as part of its mission a desire to use the game in “overcoming social and cultural obstacles for women with the ultimate aim of improving women’s standing in society.” But the story of Nigeria’s Super Falcons illustrates the cultural obstacles that remain for many African women who play soccer decades after more assertive efforts at inclusivity occurred in places like the United States, Germany, Norway, Sweden and more recently in Brazil.
Japan and North Korea have recently supplanted China as Asian powers. For the first time, Colombia has qualified for the Women’s World Cup, a quadrennial tournament that began in 1991 and now includes 16 teams. Equatorial Guinea from west-central Africa will also make its inaugural appearance, and Nigeria will participate for the sixth time.
Uche said she had never witnessed her own players participating in homosexual activity. Instead, she said that she had relied on rumors, speculation and news media accounts to form her belief that lesbian behavior had been common in the Nigerian team.
“When rumors are strong, you are bound to believe it is happening,” Uche, 38, said in a telephone interview from Nigeria’s World Cup training camp in Saalfelden, Austria.
In March, Uche made similar remarks to The Daily Sun newspaper of Nigeria. The newspaper also quoted a former technical assistant for the country’s soccer federation, James Peters, saying that he had removed some players from Nigeria’s women’s team last year, “not because they were not good players, but because they were lesbians.”
That was not her style, Uche said from Austria. Instead, she said, she had regularly brought in Pentecostal ministers to pray with and counsel her players. Her players routinely read the Bible and sometimes prayed together, Uche said.
“The issue of lesbianism is common,” said Uche, who previously played in the World Cup for Nigeria and described herself as a Christian who is married and a mother of two children. “I came to realize it is not a physical battle; we need divine intervention in order to control and curb it. I tell you it worked for us. This is a thing of the past. It is never mentioned.”
On a continent where homosexual behavior is widely considered immoral, lesbians are sometimes ostracized and subjected to beatings. In countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe, some women are raped in a so-called corrective treatment for homosexual behavior.
In one high-profile case in South Africa, a top female soccer player and lesbian activist, Eudy Simelane, 31, was murdered in 2008. Although one of her attackers testified that robbery was the motive in the stabbing death, Simelane’s death became the focus of a campaign to draw attention to violence against gays and lesbians.
Last year, Nigeria accused Equatorial Guinea of using at least one and perhaps two male players on its team because of their supposed masculine appearance. Soccer officials from Equatorial Guinea called the charge unfounded, saying it stemmed from an “inferiority complex” among rival African teams.
The case was dismissed by the Confederation of African Football, the continent’s governing body, according to a spokesman for the Nigerian soccer federation. Uche said, “Until it is proved, no one can say a player is a man or a woman.”
The treatment of lesbians in sport is not a matter restricted to women in Africa. Some women on previous United States national soccer teams have been reluctant to live openly gay lifestyles for fear of repercussions. And despite all the advances of gender equity in sport, lesbianism remains a sensitive matter in recruiting in college basketball.
Yet, homosexuality remains a particularly taboo subject and carries a significant social stigma in many parts of Africa. Nigeria is divided between a Muslim north and Christian south. Homosexual acts are prohibited and those who are openly gay or lesbian risk harassment and blackmail, experts said. In Nigeria’s north, gay men can face death by stoning for sodomy.
“It’s sad because a lot of Nigerians look at homosexuality almost as a disease,” said Unoma Azuah, a Nigerian-born novelist who teaches literature at Lane College in Jackson, Tenn., and has written extensively about the treatment of lesbians and bisexuals in Africa’s most populous nation. “It’s a very harsh environment.”
As economies have stagnated in countries like Nigeria and Uganda and many people have lost faith in progress, they have increasingly turned to conservative interpretations of Christianity and Islam, said Marc Epprecht, a historian who is the acting head of the department of global development studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and has researched gender and sexuality in Africa.
“Homophobia is an easy way to simplify the message of these churches,” Epprecht said. “’Our church is more moral than that one. Come join us. You can have a good life on earth if you follow strict, simple beliefs.’”
Joanie Evans of England, who is a co-president of the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association, said her group was “appalled” by the Nigeria situation.
“Women in sport are seen as a poor relation as it is,” Evans said. “To discriminate against women again because of their sexuality is really damaging.”
Evans criticized FIFA for not being as forceful in fighting against homophobia as it has been trying to counter racism in soccer. FIFA said that gender discrimination was strictly prohibited and that violations could result in suspensions or expulsions, but that it could not comment on the Nigeria case because it had received no official information or complaints.
In South Africa, one soccer team has challenged homophobia on the continent. It is an openly lesbian team of black players in Johannesburg called the Chosen Few. Still, participation carried its risks, players told The New York Times in interviews for a video made during the 2010 men’s World Cup.
One player, Tumi Mkhuma, said she had been raped and left pregnant by the attack. After losing her baby, she said she twice tried to kill herself. The Chosen Few was a second family, she said, and while playing, “I feel free to be who I am.” Still, Mkhuma continued to be pained by the assault.
“Sometimes, I wish I was dead,” she said.
In Nigeria, it seems unlikely that any lesbian players would live so openly as to challenge Uche, the coach, and risk losing a spot on the national team and a chance to play professionally in Europe or the United States, said Azuah, the Nigerian writer.
“I don’t see any choice they have,” Azuah said. “I know a lot of homosexuals who have found a way to survive, to pretend. Maybe some of them have felt a spiritual transformation. Who knows? The most important thing is to be empowered and have a career, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them.”
When asked about her coach’s position, Precious Dede, Nigeria’s captain and goalkeeper, said in a telephone interview from Austria that she was not in position to answer such a question. “I don’t know anything about it,” she said. “Anything she tells you is the fact."