At Atlanta 1996, Nigeria made football history by winning gold. Neil Evans looks back the men’s team’s remarkable Olympic campaign.
With Neymar’s dramatic gold medal-winning penalty fresh in the memory, we were reminded of the importance of Olympic football. The men’s and women’s tournaments felt like the only times that the hosts truly fell in love with the games. The sense of national pride and redemption for such abject failure in their own World Cup was palpable throughout this football-crazed nation. With Team GB’s absence, it’s easy to disregard how embedded the beautiful game is in Olympic history. Believe it or not, Britain has won the men’s title on three occasions before the politics of the game curtailed participation until London 2012.
Just as football will be the defining memory of Rio 2016 for many Brazilians, my throwback goes back 20 years to Atlanta 1996 – widely regarded as one of the poorest Olympiads of modern times. That may well be true, but it didn’t half have some cracking and history-making football action. It was the first Games to have a women’s tournament, duly won by the host nation. That was a seminal moment in the progression of the female game, but I’ve chosen to focus on an amazing men’s competition.
It was to be the ‘Dream Team’ of Nigeria that would make history by being the first African team to win a major international football competition – the Olympics having previously been dominated by the Europeans and South Americans. As with Rio, the rules were the same for the participating teams comprised of players aged under 23. With such names as Nwankwo Kanu, Daniel Amokachi, Taribo West, brothers Emmanuel and Celestine Babayaro and Jay-Jay Okocha, the group positively oozed creativity and natural talent. Little wonder it was called the ‘Dream Team’.
Not that Nigeria were to have it easy, being placed in a qualifying group with Japan and Brazil. Playing their matches in the stifling Florida humidity would not prove problematic as the green machine won their opening two qualifiers without conceding a goal. However, with Brazil having suffered a shock defeat to Japan, the Samba Boys needed a result against Samson Siasia’s side to prevent elimination.
Over 55,000 crammed into Miami’s Orange Bowl to watch a real clash of the titans. A single Ronaldo goal consigned Nigeria to defeat, but thanks to a plucky display from Hungary against Japan, both sides progressed to the knockout stages.
In the quarter-finals in Birmingham, Alabama, a virtuoso display against a fine Mexico side was started by Okocha and finished off by Celestine Babayaro. The Super Eagles were now in the semi-finals, medals within reach and a nation captivated back home. What was to follow were two of the most thrilling Olympic football matches ever played. The semi-final was a rematch with Brazil and it wouldn’t be a repeat of the cagey group game. Flavio Conceicao ignited the contest with a first-minute goal and added another, after Roberto Carlos scored an own goal to level things. Brazil appeared to take an unassailable 3-1 half time lead.
With almost 79,000 mainly Brazilian, fans dreaming of a first Olympic title, the Dream Team fought back with Kanu saving the day in the last minute of normal time and scoring the winner in extra time. A remarkable comeback meant Nigeria were a game away from immortality. To achieve this, there was just the small matter of playing Argentina in the final.
Quite fitting then that Athens was the venue for the Olympic final – Athens in Georgia, of course.
Unlike much of the Atlanta games, this was an absolute classic. The stage was set with the Stamford Stadium packed to the rafters. Fittingly, Pierluigi Collina was the man in the middle for what is widely regarded as the finest Olympic final ever played.
Argentina, a side containing Roberto Sensini, Hernan Crespo, Matias Almeyda, Jose Chamot, Pablo Cavallero, Javier Zanetti and Diego Simeone, were heavy favourites having brushed Spain and Portugal aside to reach the final. Once again, Nigeria fell behind early to Claudio Lopez’s thumping header as the South Americans made the early running.
After Celestine Babayaro rattled the post with a header, Cavallero misjudged a corner and Celestine Babayaro towered a header into the net. The controversial penalty awarded against West allowed Crespo to restore Argentina’s lead on 50 minutes, before a wonderful piece of improvisation from Amokachi restored parity – a delightful impromptu flick over stranding Cavallero. Both sides pushed for the winner before Emmanuel Aminike’s last-minute winner secured Nigeria the Gold medal and sporting immortality.
The Dream Team had delivered and a Lagos went wild in delirious celebration as Africa made football history. They had beaten the odds, the favourites and even the clock to find a way to win. Deserved champions in a tournament littered with more stars than the night sky. So, if anyone says that football doesn’t belong in the Olympics, just remind them of Nigeria their remarkable campaign.
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