Influx of African stars to NWSL signals shift in perceptions and styles

Gone are the days when African players were largely overlooked by NWSL clubs. In moves coinciding with an influx of cash into the league, NWSL sides have beat competitors from China and Europe to secure the signatures of several top African stars.

It is no coincidence that this trend has evolved after an impressive year for African women’s football, which saw Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco all make the knockout stages of the World Cup and Zambia pick up their first ever win at the tournament against Costa Rica.

In the recent offseason, Bay FC signed Zambia striker Racheal Kundananji, Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala and Ghana‘s Princess Marfo; Orlando Pride signed Zambia star Barbra Banda; Kansas City Current picked up Malawi striker Temwa Chawinga and South Africa’s Linda Motlhalo returned to the NWSL with Racing Louisville.

Elsewhere, Nigeria’s Ifeoma Onumonu, who was with Gotham FC from 2020-2024, has now signed for Utah Royals. Estelle Johnson (North Carolina Courage), Uchenna Kanu (Racing Louisville) and Michelle Alozie (Houston Dash) are other African players who remain in the league.

Why do players choose the NWSL?

There are a variety of reasons why African players choose the NWSL over other leagues, with one being the high standard of play, and another being the desire to experience life in the United States.

“The league itself has grown so much and it’s so competitive and it’s arguably one of the best leagues in the world. I’m in a team where they have a vision and they support women, so that’s why I’m back in the NWSL,” said Racing Louisville midfielder Motlhalo on why she returned to the league ahead of this season.

On why so many of her African colleagues have made the move with her, the Banyana Banyana playmaker known as ‘the Randfontein Ronaldinho,’ said: “African players do have talent and we are able to compete anywhere and that’s just us showing the world that we can compete wherever we go and we do have talent and like I said, the NWSL is one of the best leagues.”

Motlhalo previously played for Houston Dash before stints with Beijing BG Phoenix (China), Djurgården (Sweden) and Glasgow City (Scotland).

Meanwhile, Bay FC’s world record signing, Kundananji, who joined from Madrid CFF, said: “I don’t know about them (other African NWSL players), but for me, I just want to have a new experience and it’s been my dream to do it in the United States of America.

“I just fell in love with the team and I would love to achieve more goals with Bay FC,” adding that her dream to experience living in the US predated her dream to play soccer professionally.

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Why Racheal Kundananji ‘fell in love’ with Bay FC 

Zambia and Bay FC striker Racheal Kundananji speaks about Bay FC and explains the appeal of playing in the NWSL.

Why the NWSL beats the FAWSL to African talent

“There’s obviously an influx of money there from the US side,” said Christopher Atkins, who is Kundananji’s agent, in an interview with ESPN, commenting on the NWSL’s spending power.

“They signed a TV deal worth $60 million a year for the league, so that’s [almost] four and a half million per club just off the TV deal without other sponsorships and stuff, so there’s plenty of money coming from that side. England has been the other major driver of financial investment into women’s football.”

England, however, has not kept pace with the US when it comes to attracting the top African talent. Although Morocco international Rosella Ayane plays for Tottenham Hotspur, there are no African players in the FAWSL of the caliber of Kundananji, Banda or Oshoala.

Motlhalo, though, admitted that apart from the NWSL, she dreams of playing in England’s top flight.

“I think one league I haven’t played in and I think I would love to play in would be in England, so maybe in England,” she told ESPN when asked where she envisioned her career in 10 years.

However, although Motlhalo and former Banyana Banyana teammates Janine van Wyk and Ode Fulutudilu enjoyed stints with a top British side outside the FAWSL in Glasgow City, it has become notoriously difficult for top African talents to secure work visas to join English clubs.

Per The Athletic, the post-Brexit Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) system introduced by the FA and the Home Office ranks players according to club and international experience. The GBE system requires female players to reach 24 points in order to be eligible, but sets a significantly higher bar for international experience for players from countries ranked outside the top 20 in the world.

Nigeria (34) is currently the only African country ranked inside the top 40 and their players would need to play 80-89% of international fixtures to be automatically eligible under the GBE system.

Players from other African countries could not achieve automatic eligibility based on international experience with their current rankings even if they appeared in every single one of their national team’s games over the course of a year.

Shortly before she signed for Orlando Pride, the Athletic claimed that Banda, one of the most lethal strikers in the world, would probably not be eligible to play in the FAWSL.

Is the NWSL better than European leagues?

Another consideration for players is the high standard in the NWSL, but it is not the only league in which they could play for a top club.

Motlhalo added: “In general, women’s football is growing. When I was here in Houston, they used to have a tournament where number one in this league plays against number one in the European league.

“North Carolina Courage used to win that tournament, so that says a lot, but I feel like now, the leagues are improving, so it will be really difficult to tell which league is the best.”

The tournament she refers to, the Women’s International Champions Cup, is one of the few ways the world has of comparing the top American and European women’s football clubs.

The tournament was held in 2018, 2019, 2021 and 2022 and featured four top teams from North America and Europe. It was won twice by NWSL clubs (North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns) and twice by France‘s Olympique Lyon.

Oshoala, who recently joined Bay FC, did so off the back of a spell in which she was struggling for game time at European champions Barcelona, despite scoring 92 league goals for them in 108 appearances. At Bay, she was able to start and score on debut against Angel City FC.

However, where the NWSL comes out on top is sheer competitiveness. In the last four editions, they have had four different champions, while the FAWSL has been dominated by Chelsea, the French Division 1 by Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain, and the Liga F by Barcelona.

Europe aside, another competitor for the NWSL in terms of landing top African talent has been the Chinese Women’s Super League (CWSL).

While they might re-emerge as a superpower in decades to come, China has struggled to retain top talent amid financial woes for some of the investors in its football over the past decade, such as herbal medicine company Quanjian Group, who invested in the CWSL. In 2020, group CEO Shu Yuhui and 11 colleagues were sentenced to prison by a Chinese court for running a pyramid scheme.

While the financial issues in Chinese football have left the men’s game further behind the top than the women’s side, the CWSL has not been immune – and clubs elsewhere have caught up with the sums of money forked out to attract the likes of Oshoala, Banda and the Chawinga sisters to the league in the past.

The impact of the World Cup

One area where there appears to be universal agreement is the power of Africa’s impressive collective showing at last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.

“The way the African teams have competed at the World Cup shows that we can compete against anyone. The fact that at home there are not many resources, but we are able to showcase our talent, says a lot,” said Motlhalo.

The same four African teams who made the World Cup – South Africa, Nigeria, Zambia and Morocco – are the semi-finalists in the women’s Olympic qualifying tournament. But other countries – such as Malawi, who have Temwa Chawinga at Kansas City Current and Tabitha Chawinga at PSG – have shown that African women’s football is growing beyond these four countries.

“The four teams that are now in the final qualification for the Olympics have been competing and are always the last four, but teams are catching up now. Other teams are really catching up and it’s not going to be easy, because whoever plays South Africa, Nigeria, Zambia [or] Morocco will always bring their A-game,” Motlhalo claimed.

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Motlhalo says Africa’s players shone at World Cup

South Africa midfielder Linda Motlhalo, now at Racing Louisville FC, says Africa’s players put their hands up at the Women’s World Cup, capturing US scouts’ attention.

Atkins agreed with Motlhalo that the World Cup was a turning point, also highlighting how African players have not been able to showcase their full potential at previous international breaks due to lack of preparation.

He said: “The World Cup was an opportunity for those teams to show what they can do with just a little amount of training and a little amount of investment pre-tournament.

“Because ordinarily, they turn up at friendly matches, they have two days together, two players are arriving at different times because of VISA issues, flight issues or whatever – and then people are surprised when they lose 4-0 to the USA or whatever.

“It’s not ideal and that’s not specific to South Africa or Nigeria or whoever – that’s across the board in Africa. Teams don’t have ideal preparation for international break. It’s difficult to see how that changes when their players are so spread out and obviously, things like visas are so challenging for African players.

“But when they go to the World Cup, they have a month [or] six weeks together; they have FIFA’s investment to bring in extra coaches, extra analysts, and you start to see what the potential of those teams are.

“I think every team from Africa showed at the tournament that given that time together, they can do something and maybe that showed teams around the world that these are players who can play at the very top of the game.”