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Olympic gold at Atlanta 96 was Nigeria's finest hour

17:00 BST 21/07/2021
Nigeria at the Olympics
Since the Dream Team stunned the world to claim gold in Atlanta 25 years ago, this football-crazy nation has not had it so good

Since the turn of the millennium, only one World Cup has been won by a country from outside Europe – the 2002 edition, in which Brazil reigned supreme.

In fact, of the five tournaments in the 2000s, three have been all-European affairs. This pattern confirms the sense that Uefa nations have never been more dominant on the world stage, and the dynamics of global geopolitics do not suggest a reversal of this trend any time soon.

As Europe’s hegemonic control has increased, Africa’s footprint at the World Cup has decreased.

After the strides made by Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana in the 90s and noughties, African representation reached a nadir once again in 2018, as no side from the continent progressed beyond the Group Stage in Russia.

After failing to build on their momentum at a critical juncture in history, it seems the chance has completely gone, the door shut forever.

The Olympic Games football event, however, has served notice on a couple of occasions of just what is possible for Africa if the stars align.

It has also handily provided something of a refuge from Europe’s pervasive influence, with their countries rarely prioritizing it in any meaningful way.

Cameroon famously won gold in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics, but Nigeria is the continent’s most decorated flag-bearer, having won every medal on offer in the men’s football event.

In 1996, the self-styled Dream Team blazed a trail, shocking the world by storming to victory at the Atlanta games.

The sensational pair of wins – over Brazil and Argentina in the semi-final and final respectively – that won Nigeria gold have entered into folklore and spawned a thousand songs of adulation in the 25 ensuing years. However, remarkable as it sounds, the passing of time has perhaps dulled the appreciation for the sheer scale of the achievement.

There is the fact that the 1996 Olympics featured, more than most other Games, an astonishing amount of future footballing greats.

Being an under-23 competition, the football event has occasionally allowed a glimpse of some of the game’s stars in their formative years. As an instance, the two titans of the age, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, graced the competition in their teenage years.

However, the sheer number of household names across the board that competed in 1996 just takes the cake, even leaving aside for now the rosters that the aforementioned Brazil and Argentina put forward.

Hidetoshi Nakata would go on to become an icon of Japanese football for many years. Cuahtemoc Blanco scored at three World Cups for Mexico. Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro were the defensive lynchpins of Italy’s World Cup triumph ten years later. Raul and Fernando Morientes won multiple Champions League titles at Real Madrid.

Claude Makelele, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord went on to icon status in the Premier League, as did Mark Viduka. Khaled Badra, Radhi Jaidi and Riad Bouazizi delivered Tunisia’s only-ever Africa Cup of Nations crown...and that does not even cover everyone.

This not only places Nigeria’s feat in context, but it makes an important point: the field was strong, and the competition was stiff.

Within that, Nigeria were not left out, as they paraded a squad based on their debut World Cup side two years prior: USA 94 breakout star Daniel Amokachi, Sunday Oliseh and Jay-Jay Okocha in midfield, Emmanuel Amuneke flying down the left and the towering Uche Okechukwu minding affairs at the back.

Then there was the manner in which it was won.

A slow start (Nigeria only scored one goal in open play in the Group Stage), and then the difficulty slowly ramping up gave the sense of a team getting stronger as the tournament progressed.

This wider theme was reflected on a smaller, more contained scale in those historic final two wins – in both matches, Jo Bonfrere’s side needed to claw back deficits, and peaked at just the right moments to assert their superiority. In total, over the course of the semi-final and final, Nigeria were level for 54 and ahead for less than three of the total 184 minutes played.

The emotion of battling back, not just from 3-1 down, but from the disappointment of a missed penalty against a Brazil side featuring Ronaldo, Bebeto, Juninho Paulista, Roberto Carlos and Aldair was unlike anything the country had seen to that point, or that it has seen since.

The iconic images: of Kanu wheeling away, the cheekiness of his celebration matching the derring-do of his last-gasp equaliser; of him holding the ball aloft, are seared into the public consciousness.

Three days later, the trick was repeated against hot favourites Argentina.

Moments of quick thinking from Amokachi and Amuneke turned the tide of the game following Hernan Crespo’s second-half penalty, and saw a star-studded line-up containing the likes of Diego Simeone, Javier Zanetti, Claudio Lopez and Ariel Ortega leave Athens empty-handed.

There is a certain irony here in the fact that, typically, a lack of canniness has typically been blamed for Africa’s underperformance on the global stage.

Two years prior, the Super Eagles themselves provided a prime example of this, failing to keep the ball and their lead against an Italy side that was a man light. That Nigeria were able pull off sleights of hand (and foot) against some of the most streetwise footballing nations in the world in a way buttresses the sense of the Olympics as its own self-contained event, and made the victories even sweeter.

Never before, or again, has Nigeria had it so good.