Three days before the men’s Football final against Argentina at Atlanta 1996 Olympics, Nigeria had done the unthinkable, upturning what was as at the 74th minute a destined incontrovertible semifinal defeat. Somehow, an unprecedented comeback happened, leaving Brazil and the whole world who tuned in to watch, stunned.
Facing another South American opposition, Nigeria’s Dream Team was reinvigorated by their semifinal conquest, and with hordes of encomiums coming from home, they weren’t playing for just themselves; the will of millions of supporters propelled them.
Today (August 3rd, 2020) makes it exactly 24 years that Nigeria made history, becoming the first African country to win a GOLD medal in Football at the Olympics. It did not come easy, but the end product assuaged for all the anguish experienced while trailing in their last two games, when it looked dim for even the staunchest believer.
Argentina had taken an early lead through Claudio Lopez, the former Valencia and Lazio attacker not even leaping off the ground to head in a 3rd minute opener. Not the kind of start Nigeria would have wanted, but they had been down that path before and they had to find a way out of the mazed situation.
Almost similar to the semifinal script, Celestine Babayaro popped up at the end of a cross to head in the equalizer for Nigeria. It was quite impressive that he got to the ball first before two Argentine defenders, hitting the target and seeing the ball ricochet off the post and into the net.
Virtually every Nigerian at the time watched this game: it helped that the final took place in prime -time, starting by 8.45pm (Nigerian time)! The nation ground to a halt for this one game. Being a Saturday, there was no office work that day, and most traders had closed early just to be home in time for the build-up.
By 5pm, the streets were deserted, even though the game didn’t start for another 3hrs. Everyone wanted to see every pass, every refereeing decision, nobody wanted to blink and miss anything. Known as National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) at the time, they were equally generous with power (at least in the region this writer watched the game in then), the nation was united in every sphere that night.
So when Ariel Ortega went down in the 50th minute, winning a very harsh penalty that Hernan Crespo converted to give Argentina a 2-1 lead, many fans cussed not just the opposing player whom they deemed to have dived, but also Pierluigi Collina who would go on to become one of the most decorated referees in the world.
The game against Brazil was nothing short of miraculous, but miracles don’t happen all the time, and Nigeria did well not to concede a 3rd goal which would have made any other comeback quite mountainous.
Daniel Amokachi hooped in an equalizer in the 74th minute, and with extra time looming, Emmanuel Amunike perfectly timed his movement to sync with Sunday Oliseh’s freekick, completely beating the offside to drill in the winner for Nigeria right at stoppage time. It was a goal that made history, with Nigeria becoming the first African team to win a GOLD medal in the Football event at the Olympics.
That night Nigeria went into a frenzy! From Lagos down to Aba, Port Harcourt, Zaria, and every part of the country, people kept vigil, celebrating what they had never seen happen up till that moment. Dream Team’s success in Atlanta, Georgia, was the country’s collective success. For weeks, Nigeria’s triumph was the main discourse, not just on the streets and circles, but also dominating broadcast bulletins and National dailies.
In a period when Nigerians were seething from the effects of the repressive military rule of late General Sani Abacha, this was all the respite they needed. The following week was like a week-long holiday, and even the military took a break from oppressing its citizens, everybody was just happy.
24 years later, it arguably remains Nigeria’s biggest Footballing moment and many fans would give anything to experience such nights again.
It wasn’t just a Nigerian success, it was an African success, with then CAF president, Cameroon’s Issa Hayatou attributing the win to the progress the continent was making in Football.
“Those who are surprised by our progress will continue to be surprised, because those are the people who refuse to see the progress Africa is making” Hayatou was quoted as saying by the New York Times in 1996.
If you were too young in 1996 or not even born when this game was played, try reliving the moment with someone who did. Like an urban legend, watch your narrator valorize the players who brought joy to millions. It could paint a vivid descriptive picture for you, on how that night was in Nigeria.
People who experienced it will hardly forget it. Such moments hardly evaporate from the mind despite having happened 24 years ago!