When the Super Falcons stepped onto the field to face Canada in the early hours of Thursday morning, few Nigerians had watched Deborah Ajibola Abiodun in action.
Yet, within minutes of her competition debut, this young teenager had won the hearts of millions nationwide with her outstanding display.
What many did not know was the remarkable journey that brought Abiodun to the World Cup.
Just a year ago, she was focused on representing Nigeria at the FIFA U20 World Cup in Costa Rica.
Her critical role during the qualifying campaign ensured her well-deserved inclusion in the squad.
At the U20 World Cup, the Falconets faced a challenging group, including France, Korea Republic, and Canada. Despite the odds, they triumphed against all three teams, finishing as group leaders with a perfect nine points out of nine.
However, their journey ended in the quarterfinals against the Netherlands.
Rofiat Imuran, Tosin Demehin, Esther Onyenezide, and Abiodun were celebrated stars in the U20 squad.
Despite their early World Cup exit, all four were called up by the national team manager, Randy Waldrum, for a pair of international friendlies against the United States of America.
Abiodun made her debut in the first leg, appearing for only 45 minutes, but it was in the subsequent friendly against Japan that she played the full 90 minutes.
Although Abiodun was not initially included in the squad for the Revelations Cup in February, Waldrum’s realisation of her importance prompted him to invite her for friendlies against Haiti and New Zealand.
The team’s victories in those matches cemented Abiodun’s place in the Super Falcons’ World Cup roster.
Around that same time, the University of Pittsburgh’s Women’s team announced their signing of Abiodun from Rivers Angels, a captivating capture of a player displaying natural energy and maturity beyond her years.
Interestingly, Super Falcons’ head coach Waldrum is also a coach for the Pittsburgh Panthers.
However, controversy erupted when Waldrum named the final squad for the World Cup, including 19-year-old Abiodun, while leaving out veteran midfielder Ngozi Okobi-Okeoghene.
The critics were quick to question this decision, given Okobi’s illustrious career and experience.
In defense, Waldrum explained that the squad selection was based on the belief that it would give them the best chance to win, even though some players would inevitably be left out.
Despite the skepticism, Waldrum’s confidence in Abiodun proved well-founded when he named her in the starting lineup against Canada, the reigning Olympic champions, in Nigeria’s opening World Cup match.
Posting her photos a million times won't be enough cos it has been long a Super Falcons player gave us this collective joy.— POOJA!!! (@PoojaMedia) July 21, 2023
Take your vegetables, Deborah "Kante" Abiodun 🔥🇳🇬 pic.twitter.com/5rcl2Ry90N
The talented Canadian team was met with an impressive midfield display by Abiodun, who tackled, hassled, and dominated the game.
Even the experienced Christine Sinclair, with six World Cups and almost 200 goals under her belt, found herself contained by the young Nigerian midfielder.
Abiodun’s exceptional performance did not go unnoticed by fans on social media, who likened her relentless running and battling qualities to that of the renowned N’golo Kante.
Despite receiving a red card near the end of the match for a careless tackle, she had already left an indelible mark on the game.
It’s a dream come true to start in my first senior #FIFAWWC match. I’m happy and honoured by the privilege. A bit disappointed my debut to end the way it did. I'm sorry. Overall, I'm grateful for the chance and proud of my team today. Thanks for your support always #DA13 #NGA pic.twitter.com/TOcMbbBssw— Abiodun Deborah (@Abiodundebby100) July 21, 2023
Her stats were equally impressive, with 55 touches, eight successful ground duels, a blocked shot, and seven successful tackles.
While she will be missed in Nigeria’s second game against Australia, Deborah Abiodun has won hearts with her exceptional display.
Her name will undoubtedly be remembered for a long time as she continues to make her mark on the world stage.