1994 felt like a world away. Nigeria had left the USA as heroes, with neutral adoration from all over the globe. Now they were back in the States - but the excitement around the Super Eagles had all but vanished.
It was the 1996 Olympic group stage and like so many defences to come, Nigeria had no idea how to deal with Ronaldo. He'd just drift. From the left wing to the right, back to the centre. Do you follow? Leave him? It was barely the performance of a striker: he was playing three roles, swinging across the frontline like a pendulum. Or was that... Ronaldinho?
In the presence of Ronaldo Guiaro, Il Fenomeno - who'd sign for Barcelona that summer - took the moniker "Ronaldinho" upon his back. He had the flair of his temporary namesake but he tore through Hungary and left the Super Eagles breathless with the coldness he'd become famous for. On 30 minutes, 21-year-old Sunday Oliseh would try and restrain the Brazilian sensation, only for him to literally shrug him off and bullet the ball into the bottom corner. Ronaldo was unplayable. You heard it here, first.
It was an evening of a cat toying with a mouse and it summed up a mood. It was tiring to watch: it was tiring to be a Nigerian defender. They were not having fun at the Olympics.
The attention was on this exciting, young Brazil side; on the United States' chances of winning gold in both the men's and women's event; on how good Argentina and Portugal's future sides could both be, with glistening youngsters brought along to blood in Atlanta. The Super Eagles were not fancied. They had other concerns. They had no money for transport, with the players having to spend their own money on buses. In a vile low point, hotel staff refused to launder the team's jerseys “because of stories of AIDS,” according to Victor Ikpeba.
“We had quarrels in-camp,” goalkeeper Joseph Dosu concurred. “Some of our players were coming and going – like Nwankwo Kanu who was trying to get his contract sorted at Inter Milan and Tijani Babangida flying back and forth to make sure he got his contract with Ajax sealed.”
Nigeria looked like a divided house: especially so when they amusingly split up and sat next to the Hungarian players during mealtimes in the hotel, in an attempt to intimidate their opponents. Manager Jo Bonfrere had already quit over unpaid wage and was tempted back into the fold by players. It looked like an iffy decision: Brazil's 1-0 Ronaldo-inspired victory had seemingly put Nigeria in their place. They qualified for the next round - but on goal difference.
The Super Eagles galvanised. They had young talent amidst their ranks and players who would grow into leaders; titans of top sides. They called on individual talent in the next round: they could afford that, at the very least. This was a golden generation before the cliche got tossed around; a side of Jay-Jay Okocha, Taribo West, Celestine Babayaro, Oliseh and Kanu. Despite boasting the mercurial Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Mexico surely didn't stand a chance?
A lot of you remembered. So go on, pat yourselves on the back 👍🗓️ #WorldCup 1998, @miseleccionmxEN v @theKFA Sit back and enjoy the 'Cuauhtemiña' 🍿 pic.twitter.com/tFPsrP7p0UJanuary 17, 2019
Okocha stepped up, channeling divine inspiration. His touch was velvet, his control devastatingly simplistic and 20 minutes into the game, he cushioned a wayward cross on his chest, before rocketing the ball past Jorge Campos. When Nigeria got a second to settle it six minutes from time, courtesy of a back-flipping Babayaro, all the off-field drama - Ikpeba having to drive a team bus and Kanu popping out to phone Milan - seemed to dissipate.
The semi-finals were a big deal for an African nation - even if this was youth level football. This was at a time, of course, when only Cameroon had won a knockout game in a World Cup - six years prior, in Italy. Nigeria had arrived at this tournament with expectations at rock bottom and now they were in the final four. Likeable, impressively able to switch off background noise... but could Nigeria actually progress much further? Unlikely.
Fittingly for an Olympic Games, Athens was the scene of a date with destiny (though Georgia, not Greece), as Nigeria met Brazil once more. It was hard to predict anything other than "same again": Ronaldo was still possessed, scoring two to bury Ghana in the previous round, as Brazil struck four. When Flavio Conceicao put the Selecao into a lead a minute into the game, it looked like another tiring afternoon.
But the Nigerians never stopped fighting. A young Roberto Carlos would turn the ball into his own net for an equaliser, only for Bebeto and Conceicao once more to give Brazil a 3-1 lead into the break. Again, the Super Eagles fought back: temporary bus driver and substitute forward Ikpeba gave them hope with 12 minutes to spare, before Kanu equalised at the death. Four minutes into extra-time, he'd strike again, capitalising on a defensive calamity and calmly looping the ball over Dida, who dived too early.
It was the shock of the tournament: and it was entirely deserved. It felt surreal - and it fixed fractures.
“Football is the one thing in Nigeria that brings us together,” an emotional Okocha said after the game. “For the people back in my country, this is maybe the happiest day of their lives.”
With the Super Eagles on a high, Argentina awaited in the final. Finally, the feeling of 1994 was back.
But so were a few players who had beaten them two years ago - one of them being Diego Simeone in midfield. Nigeria would come to develop a weird rivalry with Argentina: they've faced them in four World Cups since '94. The generation changes. The result - still - hasn't.
That afternoon in Athens in 1996, however, saw a seesaw match that no World Cup would ever witness between the odd couple. Again, Nigeria went behind early, equalising through Babayaro before Hernan Crespo dispatched a contentious penalty to put Argentina a goal up once more. Just as he'd done against Brazil, Bonfrere looked to his bench, as Wilson Oruma and Emmanuel Amunike came on.
The Super Eagles were coming alive late on in games. As if on cue, 16 minutes from time, Daniel Amokachi found the answer, lobbing Pablo Cavallero for a leveller. The energy completely changed, as Argentina collectively sighed after twice letting a lead slip. This was becoming a habit for Nigeria, who pressed for a winner. That spirit of '94, of wanting to dominate, to drag the game to their opponents, hadn't left them: especially not with Olympic gold on the line. In the 90th minute, Amunike won a free-kick. The unthinkable happened for Argentina.
Like an unchoreographed line-dance troupe, the Albiceleste backline rose, trying to play Amunike offside. Roberto Sensini didn't move with the rest of the defence: the result was that the ball landed squarely at Amunike's feet. Time stood still for him to take a free shot at Cavallero, about 10 yards out. The Argentinians protested before the ball even hit the back of the net: but it was futile. Nigeria were Olympic champions.
ON THIS DAY IN 1996: Our Dream Team won gold in the football event of the Atlanta Olympic games #20YearsAgoInAtlanta pic.twitter.com/Ew8aZLsc0IAugust 3, 2016
Every one of those young gentlemen - even the three older stars - turned to precious metal at the final whistle. Immortalised in a country's national narrative; 18 pillars of sporting triumph. Try telling anyone from Nigeria that football at the Olympics doesn't matter, these days.
The win over Argentina that day became folklore back home, paving the way for successes from other African sides on the world stage and igniting the careers of future superstars. Sunday Oliseh called it the greatest moment in the Super Eagles' history - he was just 21 and would play for Ajax and Dortmund. Jay-Jay Okocha would become an icon transcendent of Nigerian football - but this moment was perhaps his proudest achievement, too. Kanu achieved greatness across Europe: but he was made in North America.
And despite the struggles that Nigeria endured, in the end, they didn't just rely on the individual brilliance of players that the nation would come to hold on its shoulders. There was grit in there. Because while the 1994 dazzled with their confidence, the class of 1996 dug in. This was a team who was never beaten. A team couldn't concede an inch to - especially in the final 15 minutes of games.
“Argentina is good,“ Kanu said after the match. “Nigeria is gold.” And so was every member of that legendary side.
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