Rita Oppongboateng never had the chance to play football with other women until she took part in a tournament in Western Sydney.
She used to train boys in her home country but finally got to play with other women at the African Cup NSW.
The tournament, held in Blacktown, saw teams representing their countries of origin play off over nine weeks for the title.
The grand final, played at the home of A-League side Western Sydney Wanderers on Saturday, saw Ghana win against South Sudan 6-5 in the men’s competition.
For the first time in the tournament’s history — a women’s grand final was also held, with Democratic Republic of Congo meeting Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe beat Congo 3-2 in the women’s Challenge Cup game.
Rita played for Zimbabwe in the tournament.
She’s of Ghanaian heritage but a lack of numbers meant she wore a different country’s jersey.
“To be an African woman trying to play sport, it’s not something that’s been supported so you really want to make sure you pursue those dreams when the opportunity arises,” she said.
Her biggest dream was to make it as a professional football player and see more diversity in her sport.
“It would be amazing to see my fellow African women playing in the W-league. I’ve not seen much,” she said.
“For me, I’m aiming to be playing for Australia some day and also be playing for the Wanderers.
“That’s my goal.”
Tournament ambassador Mohamed ‘Mo’ Adam is of Sudanese heritage and plays for the Wanderers.
He said the cup was a good place to find rising football stars and elevate them to stardom.
“I feel like there’s a lot of passion amongst the African community for football, and a lot of talent to go with that as well, it’s really important it’s at the heart of Western Sydney.
“I feel the neglected part are the females though.”
Next year, Rita is hoping there are enough women to form a standalone Ghana team.
Chilandu Chiliaka, who played on the Congo team, has played two years in a row and said this year had seen massive strides taken already.
“Last year, we had one team and we actually had to find a non-African team to verse us,” she said.
“This year we have two teams and two games – still not as much as the boys – but definitely next year I’m sure we’ll get a few more teams formed.”
In this year’s tournament, there were 16 teams on the men’s side.
While player numbers have been slowly increasing, the one thing that’s been missing this year is the raucous crowds.
Tickets were limited to 70 guests per team amid the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The most difficult part has been COVID, it hasn’t been easy for spectators, and the African Cup is made by our spectators so that’s been devastating,” Chilandu said.
“Regardless we still have people cheering us on.”
Lenox Tweneboa is an African football player but he’s always noted when reporters forget how culturally expansive that term really is.
“What’s really special about this tournament is that it highlights the diversity in such a continent as Africa and we can often have this monolithic idea that Africa is very uniform but it’s such a radically diverse continent,” he said.
Lenox is now retired but his professional career, which took him overseas to play in Myanmar and Singapore, began at the tournament 10 years ago.
Back then it was played out of a park in Merrylands.
He said the restrictions placed on the tournament this year meant a different atmosphere to years past.
“What made it special was the atmosphere, there’s always going to be drums, always going to be chanting,” he said.
“It just adds another dimension to the game to have that.”
Despite some setbacks, he said the passion of the players kept the tournament alive.
“That energy is always going to be part of the game, and this cup, always.”