Wild celebrations erupted across the country, people filled the streets, some running stark naked, some singing victorious songs, some burning tires to light up the dark, many shops and restaurants reopened to make massive sales, it was an historic night and a day to remember in the hearts of many Nigerians, it was the Olympic semi-finals and Nigeria had just fought their way through a star-studded Brazilian samba team.
Olympics 1996 was held in Atlanta. The big guns in the national team were the likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Jay Jay Okocha, Daniel Amokachi, Victor Ikpeba, Sunday Oliseh, Celestine Babayaro, coached by the dutchman Johannes Bonfrère. Coming into the tournament, Nigeria was ravaged by political issues that had taken plenty of lives. The elections that were held 3 years prior were won by the popular Moshood Abiola, but just four months after that a power hungry military government led by Gen Sani Abacha, seized the regime and used military force to suppress outspoken civilians.
A year before the olympics the execution of a famous activist Ken Saro-wiwa raised fears and the nation was troubled. Despite the strife and political unrest in the country, the dream team went on to qualify for the Olympics football tournament with bravery despite the happenings in the country.
There was hope the country could do well because of their recent football growth was decent, they had finished second place at the world youth championship in 1989 and had also won the U-17 world cup in 1993.
There was the belief that the country couldn’t go beyond the knockout stages, where football was the secondary story to the corruption and civil unrest in the country.
Nigeria were drawn with Brazil, Japan and Hungary at the group stage. Months before the tournament the head coach of the national team, Bonfrère had some issues with the Nigerian FA due to unpaid wages, which made him even leave his coaching role, but was convinced to come back by the playing squad just before the tournament, after a 5-1 friendly loss to Togo.
Furthermore, incompetence of the FA meant that they fell short of funds to pay the players wages, and it was later revealed by many from the camp that the players had to pay for services themselves rather than receive allowances from the federation. Matters got worse as the team’s hotel would refuse to provide laundry services in the poorly judged fear of contacting AIDS, meaning these footballers had to be more than just footballers.
Fortunately for the team the group stage draws were favorable to them as they had to draw the tournament’s favourites last. They grabbed these chance with both hands.
In their first game against Hungary, the team’s talisman also captain of the team, Kanu, scored the only goal of the tie on the brink of half-time to hand eagles the advantage.
Against Japan, there was a similar story to the previous game, Nigeria weren’t too flashy instead they focused on getting the three points as this would guarantee them progression to the next round of the competition and reduce the dread when facing Brazil. Nigeria won the game 2-0 with Tijani Babangida and Jay Jay Okocha registering their names on the score sheet after the 80th minute.
On the final group game against the Selecao of Brazil, a goal from Ronaldo was the only goal that separated both sides as Brazil won the game 1-0. Nigeria would now face Mexico in the next round of the competition to secure a spot in the semi-finals.
In the game against the El Tri, Nigeria displayed exactly what made them such a capable outfit, Okocha was at his best dribbling past players and later got his name on the score sheet, scoring a 25-yard stunner early in the game to hand the eagles an early lead into the game. Then six minutes before the final whistle, 17-year old Babayaro, scored to seal the game and book them a spot in the semi-finals, this was already historic amidst all the major issues in the country.
In the semi-finals, Nigeria was up against a star-studded Brazilian team with the likes of Ronaldo, Bebeto, Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Juninho, who were the favourites to clinch the Olympic gold medal once again. Brazil scored an early goal inside a minute through Flavio Conceicao, but the eagles were quick to respond as a low cross fro Babayaro was bundled in by the confused Roberto Carlos, this raised the eagles hopes high, then Bebeto put Brazil ahead once again and before the half-time whistle, Conceicao grabbed his second after a neat team move. At half-time, the Brazilian coach took off some of his best players with one eye on a moth-watering final with Argentina.
3-1 down and with 12 minutes to go, either a comeback spirit possessed Nigeria, or the team was lifted by thousands of prayers muttered half across the globe from their homeland, Victor Ikpeba who came in as a sub reduced the deficit from 20 yards out, before Captain Kanu equalized with a goal mouth scramble which took the game into extra time.
In just 4 minutes of the extra time, Kanu completed the comeback with his second goal of the game, the whole of Nigeria quaked with thunderous screams of “goal”!, and the hearts of many were surely filled with joy, the underdogs of the competition had jus come from 3-1 down to beat the defending champions in a dramatic night, it was a nightmare for the Selecao.
It was the finals and the eagles were up against another star-studded South American team, the Albiceleste of Argentina, with the likes of Diego Simeone, Javier Zanetti, Juan Sebastian Veron and Hernan Crespo, the team was also managed by the captain of the team that won the world cup 18 years prior, Daniel Passarella.
With just 3 minutes into the game, Claudio Lopez got at the end of a fine cross and headed it in goal wards to give the albiceleste a 1-0 lead. And just like the Semi-final, there was a quick response from Babayaro once again who equalized with a powerful header straight into the net. Early in the second half there was a spot kick awarded to Argentina, and Crespo converted.
The eagles made another comeback on another historic match, the second goal came from Daniel Amokachi to level the scores again and in the 90th minute Emmanuel Amunike smashed the ball into the net with a superb volley to give the eagles a first time lead and also the match winner. The highly spirited and zealous Nigerian team shocked the world, clinching the Olympic gold medal and making Olympic football history by becoming the first African team to do so. Since then Nigeria has gone on to win a silver medal in Olympics 2008 were they lost to Argentina in the Final and a bronze medal in 2016 Olympics.