“When I was stuck indoors I was just begging, OK, even if it’s just five-a-side, even if it’s three v three, just let me play,” recalls Asisat Oshoala of life in lockdown. “Football was something we had every day, something you don’t even realise is so important, but when you lose something you realise it really is. I really do appreciate my job more after lockdown, because I felt something went from me for four months. I wasn’t complete.”
It is nearly six months since Barcelona Women last played a competitive fixture, and they are not exactly being allowed to ease themselves gently back into action. Their first game comes on Friday, when they play a Champions League quarter-final against their great domestic rivals Atlético Madrid in Bilbao. “Lockdown was really tough, I’m not going to lie,” Oshoala says. “I live alone so it was that much more difficult for me. You have to do everything possible to make sure you’re in good health so I didn’t go out, I was so scared because I didn’t want to catch the virus. So I stayed indoors for about four months. On our first day back I was able to go out, to get on the pitch, to train with the girls, to see different people. It was like my birthday on that day.”
Four times African Women’s Footballer of the Year, a scorer at two World Cups and in a Champions League final – a late consolation in Barça’s 4-1 defeat to Lyon last year – and still only 25, success seems to have come easy to Oshoala. But there have been plenty of dead ends and missteps on her path from Ikorodu, the city north-east of Lagos where she grew up, to Barcelona, and the greatest battle of all was to start along it in the first place. “I feel like everything is happening according to time,” she says. “It’s stage by stage, with life, with everything.”
Last year she set up the Asisat Oshoala Foundation, whose ambition is to help young girls from around Africa pursue a career in sport. It is a life that was very nearly denied to her, by parents who considered football so unsuitable for their daughter that they banned her from so much as playing on the street with her friends. “I know thousands of kids are still going through the same thing I went through when I was young,” she says. “Parents will say they want their kids to go to school, they don’t want them in sport – especially girls. I try to speak to girls, to encourage them, hold seminars with the parents, tell them to encourage their kids.
“You don’t necessarily have to leave football to have an education, or leave education to go into sport. You can always do the two together. That’s what I’m trying to preach to parents in Africa, and to tell the girls that they don’t have to give up on their dreams because of society or because of the people around them. I tell them my own story and when they see that there’s someone who has actually got something out of this process, they might go on the same path as well.”
It was Oshoala’s performances at the 2014 Under-20 World Cup in Canada, which she ended with the Golden Boot as top scorer and the Golden Ball as best player, that convinced her parents that success was within her grasp, and their support is now absolute. “Sometimes the rough road is more interesting,” she says. “The best thing they can do right now is support me and that’s what they’re doing. I’m sure now if they had friends who have kids who play football, or are into sport, they would actually encourage those people, because they made a mistake with me when I was younger.”
Oshoala’s success in Canada led to Liverpool signing her the following year, and when she did not flourish there she spent another frustrating season at Arsenal before giving up on England and moving to China, where over two years with Dalian Quanjian she rebuilt her reputation. “Sometimes you’re not having the best time, at work or wherever, but it doesn’t mean that’s the end,” she says. “You have to redeem your own image, try to find your confidence again. I went to China, played a lot of games, scored goals, won trophies. A lot of people were going: ‘Why go to China?’ But I knew what I wanted in my career at that point in time. I just needed confidence and that was what China gave to me.”
She joined Barcelona last January, initially on loan, and has flourished this season, scoring 20 goals in 19 appearances before lockdown including two in a 6-1 thrashing of Atlético in the league last September. Two subsequent meetings have been rather closer – a 0-0 away draw in January’s return fixture, and a 3-2 cup win in February in which Oshoala scored what turned out to be the winner, after her former Barça teammate Toni Duggan had given Atleti an early lead. Her side may be favourites to progress but with Wolfsburg and Lyon, winners between them of eight of the last nine titles, still in the competition their task is formidable.
“I’m just really happy Uefa didn’t cancel the Champions League,” Oshoala says. “I’m really happy that football is back for us.”