Twenty-seven years ago, Nigeria conquered the world by beating Argentina to win the gold medal in football at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics.
Dateline: 3 August 1996 at Sanford Stadium, Atlanta
In the 89th minute, Pierluigi Collina awarded Nigeria a free-kick just inside the left flank. Wilson Oruma took the kick; the Argentines ran out, hoping to keep the Nigerians offside, but Emmanuel Amuneke swung his left boot at the ball, and that was it.
Nigeria took the lead for the first time in the match, and that was enough for a historic win. Nigeria had become Olympic champions, and the country became firmly stamped on the world football map.
Nigeria’s football emerges
The 1994 World Cup established Nigeria as a powerful force in football, but it was the Olympic gold medal match against Argentina that fully demonstrated the country’s football potential.
Sunday Oliseh’s book, ‘Audacity to Refuse,’ presents an illuminating account of how the Olympic Eagles prepared for the competition under Johannes Bonfrere.
Their preparation, like that of a ragtag team, could not have promised a favourable conclusion, especially after the team’s defeat to Togo at the National Stadium in Lagos. But the unexpected defeat served as a wake-up call.
As the team assembled at their Lagos camp in May 1996, the players believed they could achieve something remarkable in Atlanta.
The Super Eagles’ impressive performance at the 1994 World Cup partly inspired this newfound confidence. The team was just a minute away from the quarterfinals when they were thwarted by a Roberto Baggio late equaliser in the encounter against the 1982 world champions, the Azurris of Italy.
Notable players like Uche Okechukwu, Austin Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Emmanuel Amuneke, and Victor Ikpeba were part of the team, but their preparations were subpar for a tournament of that status.
Backstory of the 1996 Olympic Games triumph
The year 1996 was fraught with tragedy and turmoil. But the summer of 1996 ultimately provided hope and pride for Nigeria as its football team, aptly tagged the ‘Dream Team’, etched their names in sporting history.
Defying all odds, the young but experienced Nigerian squad achieved the ultimate triumph.
This momentous victory not only made history for Nigeria but also marked an unprecedented achievement for Africa and the entire black race.
A Turbulent Year
An emotionally tricky period is how 1996 can best be described for most Nigerians. The late military dictator, Sani Abacha, was in charge as bombs wreaked havoc on military installations and public spaces across the country.
The nation was in the throes of a prolonged political impasse featuring the tragic murder of Kudirat Abiola, wife of the denied winner of the 12 June 1993 presidential election, Moshood Abiola.
Amidst the chaos, bloodshed and uncertainty, the Nigerian Dream Team were a lone beacon of light, uniting the nation and providing a much-needed respite from the prevailing gloom.
AFCON miss becomes Olympic gold impetus
The mid-90s heralded the golden era of Nigerian football. Fourteen years after winning the AFCON trophy on home soil, Nigeria’s wait for a second title ended in 1994 as Clemens Westerhof led the Super Eagles to victory in Tunisia.
An equally unforgettable, glorious outing followed that fantastic outing in North Africa in North America as the Super Eagles wowed the world in their debut appearance at the Mundial. FIFA subsequently ranked the team at an all-time high of fifth in the world, and it looked like a matter of time before the nation won a serious senior title.
Unfortunately, the Super Eagles were denied the chance to go to South Africa to defend their 1994 AFCON title as the late General Abacha withdrew the Super Eagles from the tournament in South Africa as a fallout of the condemnation of his brutal junta for the hanging of Ogoni rights activists, Saro Wiwa and his colleagues.
After missing the 1996 AFCON tournament, the Olympic Games were the next available tournament for the country’s hungry and glory-seeking players.
Journey to Olympic Gold
Nigeria’s journey to Olympic gold was bumpy and rough. In the qualification matches against Egypt, they displayed tenacity, winning 3-2 in the first leg and holding Egypt to a 1-1 draw in Cairo.
However, the team’s preparation for the Games was overshadowed by financial woes and internal disputes between the coaching staff and the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF). The players, including Oliseh, Ikpeba, and others, grappled with unpaid allowances.
“With the shortage of money to rent the buses from the FA, Victor Ikpeba and I had to use our own credit cards to rent three 12-seater mini-vans for the team,” Oliseh recalled in his book, Audacity to Refuse.
Most of his teammates corroborated Oliseh’s claim that they had it very rough off the pitch in Atlanta.
Undeterred, the Dream Team forged ahead, motivated by their collective belief and dedication to make their nation proud.
A remarkable group stage
Nigeria was drawn into a tough group alongside Hungary, Japan, and mighty Brazil and thus faced an uphill battle. Despite their historical lack of victories in Olympic football, they ignited their campaign with a 1-0 win over Hungary, courtesy of a goal from U-17 World Cup winner Nwankwo Kanu.
In their second match against Japan, Nigeria clinched a dramatic 2-0 victory with late strikes from Tijani Babangida and Jay-Jay Okocha. While they suffered a 1-0 defeat against Brazil, the young Nigerian team had done enough to secure qualification for the knockout stages.
The semifinal miracle against Brazil
The quarterfinal clash against Mexico saw Nigeria triumph 2-0, setting the stage for an epic semifinal showdown against the favourites, Brazil, who were chasing Olympic gold – the only football diadem the country hadn’t won. After the 1-0 loss in the group stage, many considered Nigeria a massive underdog.
In a breathtaking encounter, Brazil took an early lead, but Nigeria showed remarkable resilience, levelling the score not once but twice, having gone 3-1 down by the end of the first half. Kanu’s iconic equaliser in added time – the impudent chip and shot—exhibited a calmness that could only have been divine amidst the chaos that was all around him.
Then, with sublime skill, Kanu struck the sensational golden goal in extra time, securing Nigeria’s place in the final and leaving the football world stunned.
The historic gold medal match
Nigeria’s opposition in the gold medal match was another formidable South American team, Argentina, boasting talents such as Hernan Crespo, Claudio Lopez, and Ariel Ortega.
In a fast and furious final, Argentina and Nigeria exchanged excellent-headed goals in the third and 28th minutes, respectively. Lopez scored first in the third minute, and Celestine Babayaro equalised. Babayaro’s trademark celebration continues to live rent-free in the heads of many Nigerian football fans.
Nigeria managed to tie the score again with the help of Daniel Amokachi, who showed great skill and determination after Argentina’s penalty. Then, in the match’s dying moments, Emmanuel Amunike popped up to deliver the decisive blow.
While Kanu was the undoubted star of the 1996 Olympic football team, we must make an appreciable mention of Uche Okechukwu and Daniel Amokachi, on whom the success was founded and built.
United in victory
Like at the USA 1994 World Cup when Nigerians had to keep vigil to watch the Super Eagles, the case was similar for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and the sleepless nights were worth it.
The win united Nigerians, as noted by Garba Lawal in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES.
“When I came back from the Olympics with Tijani Babangida, Babayaro, and Daniel Amokachi, that was when we knew people were keeping vigil to watch us. They told us that both men and women were not sleeping, so they could watch us. They said after every game they would come out and celebrate in those odd hours; that was the turning point,” Lawal noted.
While remembering Nigeria’s historic feat 27 years later is good, it is unfortunate it is yet to be repeated. This perhaps gives credence to pessimists’ opinions that describe shining moments in Nigeria’s sporting history as accidental successes, which are never products of proper planning.
Qualifying for the Olympic football event has now become a daunting task for Nigeria.
As we remember the glorious victory 27 years ago, the present tells us we will miss a second consecutive appearance at the Olympic Games. The dream birthed in 1996 grows dimmer by the day. Nigerian footballers were absent at the Tokyo Games and will also be absent at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.