Ann Chiejine's brushed-down silver hair makes quite a statement, but it's nothing compared with what the flashy Nigerian goalkeeper had to say today.
Moments after the Nigerian Women's World Cup team finished training, its players joining hands in a large circle and draping jerseys over their heads for their customary post-practice prayer, Chiejine stepped to the sideline and explained Nigeria's approach to its game Thursday against the United States at Chicago's Soldier Field.
The Americans are huge favorites, even though Nigeria, like the U.S. team, won its opening match in the Women's World Cup last weekend.
"We are committed to God," Chiejine said. "I am sure that is why God is answering us. That is how God is going to do it for us against the U.S. We are like David, and the U.S. is like Goliath.
"Mia Hamm, anybody, let them come. If I cannot catch [the ball], God will catch it for me."
The Nigerians, who defeated North Korea, 2-1, Sunday, bring flamboyance, along with their strong faith, to the field. Each player is Christian, as is approximately 40 percent of the country's population. (Their coach, Ismaila Mabo, is Muslim.) Chiejine, who owns a hair salon, dyed her hair and that of five teammates before the match against North Korea. The members of the Super Falcons thus possess a variety of hair colors: silver, blue, gold, green and white -- which matches their uniforms -- and red.
Chiejine, who has done part-time reporting for the weekly Nigerian show "Female Soccer With Pepsie," might be the splashiest player on a team that prides itself on creative, athletic and stylish play. Chiejine routinely adds dramatic touches to routine saves. Her teammates are more likely to dazzle individually than with precision passing and ball movement. The Super Falcons, indeed, play much like the Nigerian men's team, the Super Eagles, who were one of the surprises of the 1994 World Cup but were eliminated in the first round of the quadrennial competition last summer.
"Nigeria doesn't have a particular pattern of play," said Aminu Abdulmuminu, the Nigerian Football Association chairman. "The situation dictates how our players approach the game. One strength of the Nigerian team, they can adapt to any opposition they confront."
The Nigerians' brashness and unpredictability worry U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco, who hinted that he might use defender Sara Whalen or another bench player Thursday to get more speed in the U.S. lineup.
"They're obviously very confident right now," DiCicco said. "They're very comfortable with their style. Nigerian soccer, they are always very dangerous. We have to be very organized defensively."
Nigeria is the largest country in Africa, and players pride themselves on being the dominant team on the continent. The Nigerian women's team is playing in its third Women's World Cup. In the inaugural Cup in 1991, Nigeria lost all three first-round matches. In 1995, it tied Canada, but still was eliminated in the first round. This year, the Nigerian players and their federation believe, will be a year for advancement.
That self-assurance shows up when players assess their own play. "A brilliant and intelligent defender with remarkable vision," wrote Prisca Emeafu -- the blue-haired player -- in the biography she filled out before the tournament. The silver-haired Chiejine called herself "the best goalkeeper in Africa." Rita Nwadike (red hair) described herself as "a prolific striker nicknamed `Tormentor.' " Star forward Mercy Akide is nicknamed "Marvelous."
Nigerians pride themselves on the widespread acceptance of women's soccer in their country. Besides the weekly television show put on by Pepsie Ogechi Adiukwu, a television personality who filmed much of today's training, many newspapers employ full-time women's soccer correspondents. At least seven journalists accompanied the team to the United States.
Women's soccer began in Nigeria in the 1960s, when a group of female employees from a famous department store chain in Lagos formed the Women's Amateur Football Association. By the late 1970s, organized soccer for women existed at the club level. Several philanthropists, including Princess Bola Jegede, are credited with funding some of the more than 40 registered women's teams in Nigeria.
This afternoon's practice began as it ended, only rather than reciting a prayer, the players sang a rousing worship song, "Prayer, the Master Key."
Later, they did various agility drills, one of which required alternately hopping over each others' backs and crawling under each others' legs across the field. Their 2 1/2-hour practice bore no resemblance to U.S. training sessions, which usually include more team-oriented drills and only half-field scrimmages. For one grueling 30-minute stretch, Nigeria's players scrimmaged the length of the field.
The players communicate with each other in English, though some aren't very comfortable with the language. It is their nation's official language and the only common one, however; the players speak five Nigerian dialects.
There is one subject -- regardless of the language used -- in which there is no danger of misunderstanding: winning.
"Just like the Americans come to the World Cup to win, we have come to the World Cup to win," said Lizzy Onyewuhwa, the director of the Nigerian team. "Definitely, we are going to win."