The 1996 Olympic football tournament in Atlanta was a star-studded affair, with the likes of Ronaldo, Raul and Hernan Crespo just some of the young players hoping to add a gold medal to their already-growing trophy collections.
But despite World Cup holders Brazil and reigning Olympic champions Spain both boasting plenty of promise, it was Nigeria’s Under-23 side that would find a way to claim Africa’s first ever Olympic gold in football.
It was a fitting triumph for the affectionately known ‘Dream Team’, who managed to wake up an entire continent with an unforgettable campaign that defied the odds and all expectations.
Nigeria’s preparations for the tournament were far from ideal, with Dutch manager Jo Bonfrere quitting for five weeks over a pay dispute in the build-up, only to be lured back by his players.
“I came back because the players asked me to, and I believe in these players,” Bonfrere said of his return to the fold, and it was that belief that would ultimately pay off in the biggest way possible as Nigeria rewarded their coach with a gold medal - if not a pay rise!
Things started off perfectly for Bonfrere’s side in the U.S. as they opened the tournament with a 1-0 win over Hungary. Future Arsenal cult hero Nwankwo Kanu, who had just sealed a move to Inter from Ajax prior to the competition, was the match winner with the sole strike in Orlando.
Nigeria then edged past Japan 2-0, courtesy of two late goals - the second of which was scored by Jay-Jay Okocha - before falling 1-0 to Brazil in their final group game following a Ronaldo strike. Despite that defeat, the African side would progress to the knockout stages on goal difference behind a Selecao squad that also included eventual World Cup winners Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and Dida.
Full of confidence and facing a Mexico side in the quarter-finals that drew two of their three group games, the Dream Team kept their shock run going with a surprisingly comfortable 2-0 victory, with Okocha and ex-Chelsea left-back Celestine Babayaro on the scoresheet.
A rematch against Brazil in the semi-finals loomed after the South American giants thumped Africa’s other great hope, Ghana, 4-2, in the last-eight, with Ronaldo bagging a double.
In front of just under 80,000 fans in Georgia, a similar scoreline looked on the cards, with Nigeria set to bow out of the Olympics in disappointing fashion as they trailed Brazil 3-1 with less than 15 minutes remaining.
But a goal from Victor Ikpeba in the 78th minute gave them some hope, and just as the game entered injury time, Kanu struck an equaliser to send the game into extra time.
Kanu would pop up again four minutes into the half-hour period with a Golden Goal that broke Brazilian hearts but brought a smile to the face of every Nigerian.
“This means everything to Nigeria. Football is the one thing in Nigeria that brings us together,” midfielder Okocha said after the win. “For the people back in my country, this is maybe the happiest day of their lives.”
Having dramatically knocked off one South American heavyweight, Nigeria next turned their attention to their opponents in the Gold Medal match, Argentina.
The Albiceleste were enjoying a fine tournament, having avoided defeat in the group stages and comfortably beaten both Spain and Portugal in the knockout rounds.
Star striker Crespo had netted four goals across those last two games, and Argentina, who also boasted the likes of Diego Simeone, Roberto Ayala and Ariel Ortega within their squad, would have been feeling confident of claiming gold at Sanford Stadium.
The resulting final, however, summed up Nigeria’s entire tournament as they twice came from a goal down before Emmanuel Amunike fired home the winner in the 90th minute.
While Argentina protested for offside, Nigeria were left to celebrate as the full-time whistle blew and 86,000 football fans in the States got to witness one of the sport’s great underdog stories first-hand.
Having been doubted since the start of the tournament before falling behind to both Brazil and Argentina in the final stages, Okocha was asked if his side ever contemplated throwing in the towel. His response summed up the Nigerian spirit perfectly: “Oh, no, no, no. We never give up. We’re Africans.”
Since that 1996 triumph, Nigeria’s U23s have continued to punch above their weight at the Olympics, claiming a silver medal in 2008 before settling for bronze in 2016.
But as it stands, the 1996 tournament remains the gold standard as one team turned a nation’s dreams into a reality.