Nigeria’s momentous triumph at the 1996 Olympic Games

Nigeria’s momentous triumph at the 1996 Olympic Games

At last, the body went limp. Ken Saro-Wiwa had been hung five times, but as his body grew cold, the executioners had finally fulfilled their order. The world was furious. “A bad trial, a fraudulent verdict, an unjust sentence, and it has now been followed by judicial murder,” said British Prime Minister John Major. Seni Abacha, Nigeria’s brutal military dictator, was an international pariah. 

Saro-Wiwa’s death had been long been threatened. The son of a trader, he had grown into a writer of international repute and was a vehement critic of the Nigerian government’s corruption and cronyism. Abacha’s regime, which received $11m a day from its oil reserves, had watched as petroleum companies lay waste to the environment in Saro-Wiwa’s home in Ogoniland. Waters were polluted, farmlands destroyed, and ecosystems devastated without recourse.

By 1990, Saro-Wiwa had seen enough. He joined and later led the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), devoting his energies to advocating for his people’s rights. When half of the Ogoni population turned out for a series of MOSOP marches in January 1993, however, Abacha took the most draconian of actions. Saro-Wiwa was arrested and, along with a handful of other activists, murdered after a sham trial in November 1995. “My conscience is clear,” insisted Nelson Mandela as the news broke in Cape Town. “I did everything to resolve this matter through persuasive diplomacy. It is absolutely necessary now to take firm action.” 

At Madiba’s insistence, Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth of African Nations. Abacha was furious, and in turn banned the country’s football team from competing in the 1996 African Cup of Nations, due to be held in South Africa. The news was greeted with devastation in Lagos. Angry fans stormed the Sports Ministry demanding answers. Nigeria were the defending champions and the continent’s best team. Two years before, their attacking football had dazzled at the World Cup, Clemens Westerhof’s men voted the most entertaining of the tournament even after Roberto Baggio’s Italy had knocked them out in the second round. Now, they had nowhere to play. 

Thousands of miles away, anticipation was growing. The US Olympic Committee had pumped $5bn dollars into the Atlanta Games, and hopes were rising for a medal finish for the women’s and men’s football teams. With capacity crowds and home-field advantage, a nation expected positive results. 

By the time Céline Dion had brought the opening ceremony to a close, Jo Bonfrère’s Nigeria were in need of distraction. The Dutchman’s side had only qualified for the Olympics after a hard-fought win over Kenya in the preliminary qualifying tournament, and the build-up had been far from ideal. 

Bonfrère had brought his side to Tallahassee a few weeks before, hoping that an inconspicuous arrival would help them focus on footballing matters. After all, it was Nigeria’s first meaningful competition in two years. His plans would be ruined, however, with the team beset by organisational problems at the Nigerian Football Association. “About two or three weeks into the camp, we never had allowances,” Viktor Ikpeba later told Goal. “There was no money in the camp and generally most of us used our own credit cards in renting buses taking us to training sessions.” Bonfrère was equally upset. “As coach of the Nigerian team,” he grumbled afterwards, “you are also the welfare manager, the ball boy, a nurse and an administration officer.”

Just before the tournament, his side had lost 3-1 at home in a friendly against Togo and had been booed off the pitch by the exasperated crowd. Bonfrère had already quit as manager a few months earlier in a dispute over unpaid wages, convinced to return only at the insistence of his squad. Now, in the wake of the Togo game, his bosses tried to sack him. “We were already in America,” recalled striker Daniel Amokachi in an interview years later, “and as a team, we said ‘if you’re sending him away, then you’ll need to find new players’.” The FA, facing a mass revolt, backed down.

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Things weren’t much better amongst the players. The hotel staff refused to launder the Nigerian kits, in a misplaced fear of contracting AIDS, while Nwankwo Kanu and Tijani Babangida were busy negotiating club transfers, regularly flitting in and out of camp. Sunday Oliseh spoke euphemistically about tensions in the squad. “In the team, it didn’t always go right. We had problems like always when you have 22 men living under the same roof for a period of more than eight weeks. It’s difficult for there to be peace.” 

The opening game against Hungary offered a release of the tension. Both teams had stayed in the same hotel, and the Nigerians had sat amongst their opponents at mealtimes hoping to intimidate them. Any psychological advantage was minimal, however, with only a magical finish from Kanu separating the sides. 

The second group game against Japan was more straightforward, but again the Super Eagles left it late. With eight minutes left, Tijani Babangida tore onto a long ball outside the box, his scuffed finish put into the net by a Japanese defender. The Nigerian bench erupted in joyful celebration, but better was yet to come. Minutes later, Hideto Suzuki slipped inside his own box, trapping the ball with his arm. Jay-Jay Okocha buried the resulting penalty at the second time of asking. 

Brazil were up next for Bonfrère’s men, but the world champions were out of sorts. Beaten by Japan at the Orange Bowl, O Seleção had fizzed through a tepid Hungarian side in their next game, winning 3-1 courtesy of goals from Ronaldo, Juninho and Bebeto. The winner of this encounter would top the group and enjoy a favourable tie in the next round. 

Ronaldo, as he did so often throughout his glittering career, proved to be the difference. Receiving the ball on the right-hand side of the box, O Fenômeno escaped the attention of his marker to fire a shot past a flailing Dosu Joseph and into the bottom corner. Nigeria were through, but barely, courtesy of their superior goal difference. 

Mexico weren’t among the medal favourites, but they had beaten Italy in the group stages before two dire draws against South Korea and Ghana. In Cuahtémoc Blanco they possessed one of the tournament’s most creative players, while Jesús Arellano and Pavel Párdo offered width and control. Clearly, Nigeria would need to be at their best to beat Carlos de los Cobos’ side in Alabama. 

Unfortunately for El Tri, they came up against an inspired Jay-Jay Okocha. On 20 minutes, the future legend controlled a cross from the left on his chest, before arrowing a shot from 25 yards out into Jorge Campos’ bottom corner. The Mexicans had no reply, and when Celestine Babayaro swept home from a corner six minutes from time, the game was up. Nigeria were through to the semi-finals. 

Athens, Georgia was where Nigeria’s Olympic dream was supposed to die. After labouring in the group stage, Brazil had swept Ghana aside in the second round 4-2 with Ronaldo scoring twice, and it was they who Nigeria needed to conquer. Mário Zagallo’s side looked focussed as they walked hand-in-hand onto the pitch at Sandford Stadium. As the whistle blew, it became obvious that any neuroses they had were long gone. After just one minute, Flávio Conceição’s deflected free-kick put Brazil into the lead. 

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Not for the first time, Nigeria had Babayaro to thank. The 17-year-old, who was in the process of moving to Chelsea, swept in a low cross from the left that was bundled into his own net by Roberto Carlos. It was a brief respite. The goal seemed to goad Brazil into attack, with Bebeto and Ronaldo tormenting Uche and Taribo West with their skill and movement. By half-time Brazil had scored two more, with Bebeto tapping in a rebound before Conceição gleaned his second from a neat one-two. 

Silence reigned in the Nigerian dressing room. The players hadn’t been good enough and Bonfrère let them know it. The Dutchman ordered his charges to perform better in the second half, but he couldn’t have expected the magical display they would soon put in.   

Brazil were off the pace, happy to conserve their energy in advance of the final. Zagallo withdrew Ronaldo and Juninho, thinking the night was won. Then, on 78 minutes, Victor Ikpeba came off the bench to score Nigeria’s second, a precise first-time shot sweeping into Dida’s bottom-left corner. The comeback was on.

Few Nigerian footballers can boast the kind of prestige afforded to Nwankwo Kanu. Whilst his career with Ajax, Inter and Arsenal helped forge his legacy, it was in those dying moments when he became a national hero. Papilo – the ‘Butterfly’ – was about to spread his wings. 

Ninety minutes were on the clock, and Okocha was fearing the worst. Was his penalty, that had been scuffed straight at Dida moments before, about to consign his team to an early exit? One last chance presented itself with a throw-in near the corner flag. Okocha launched it into the box, sparking a melée of yellow and green shirts. The ball was poked to Kanu, three yards out with his back to goal and with Dida approaching fast. Reacting instantly, he rolled the ball into the air before scuffing a bouncing volley over the onrushing goalkeeper. Cue pandemonium. 

If the first goal raised the roof, the second blew it off the stadium. As the game plunged into extra time, both sides seemed content to take it slow. A long ball was punted towards Ikpeba, bouncing off his back and into the path of Kanu. A feint on his right foot took out two Brazil defenders, before he thumped the ball resolutely beyond a hapless Dida. A golden goal, a golden moment, and a chance for the gold medal in the final against Argentina. 

La Albiceleste are favourites at most football tournaments, and this was no different. The Argentina squad read like a who’s who of footballing glitterati at the turn of the millennium: Roberto Ayala and Javier Zanetti in defence, Diego Simeone and Ariel Ortega in midfield, Hernán Crespo and Claudio López in attack. Manager Daniel Passarella – a man, at the time, second only to Diego Maradona in his country’s footballing hierarchy – was almost an afterthought. 

With three minutes gone, López got on the end of a Crespo cross to fire a header into the roof of the net: 1-0. Babayaro responded minutes later, rising highest to head in an equaliser off Pablo Cavallero’s near post as Zanetti stood and watched. The second half was just as tense, but a blatant dive from Ortega fooled referee Pierluigi Collina on 50 minutes. Crespo smashed the resulting penalty into the top corner, giving Dosu Joseph no chance. Passarella lit another cigarette on the touchline.

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Amokachi had endured a difficult tournament. The Everton striker was unhappy in England and, like many of his teammates, had witnessed a frustrating season at club level. Bonfrère had told his striker that he needed to score if he wanted to be taken seriously as a top-level striker. On 74 minutes, he finally took his advice. 

Babayaro was again the creator, his long throw nodded into the box by Kanu. Amokachi reacted quickest to the free ball, dinking a right-footed chip over a stranded Cavallero and into the net. Once more, both teams seemed consigned to the idea of extra time. 

Wilson Oruma had been restricted to substitute appearances during the tournament, but the Nancy man was a talented player with a keen eye for a cross. With 90 minutes gone, he stood over a free-kick on Argentina’s right wing, searching for a target. It was a poor cross, but it didn’t matter. Emmanuel Amunike found himself completely free in the box, escaping a weak offside trap to volley into the bottom corner. The Argentines protested wildly at the referee, but the Trinidadian linesman Peter Kelly wouldn’t be moved. The goal stood. 

When the final whistle went, an entire continent rose up. Players, fans and coaches rushed onto the pitch carrying Nigerian flags. Dosu Joseph ran the length of the pitch, blowing kisses to the crowd. Groups of Nigerian players danced mirthfully as the defeated Argentines trudged off. Kanu, the inspiration in a team of heroes, stood motionless with his arms raised towards the heavens, engulfed by his delirious teammates.

“I don’t want to talk about the referee or the game at the moment,” said Passarella in the post-match press conference, “it’s too early.” Ariel Ortega was less magnanimous, complaining that “their third goal was offside”. Roberto Ayala, when discussing the final years later, admitted: “That Nigeria team was the best they ever had.”

At that moment, however, it felt like Nigeria were the best team in the world. Back home, cafes and restaurants reopened as customers flooded from their homes and into the streets. Families that had crowded around neighbours’ TVs turned to each other, tears streaming down their face. Generators lost power and bars ran out of beer, whilst fans burst into television studios to celebrate live on air. Some people even stripped from their clothes, celebrating with wild abandon as the win was toasted across Africa. 

“We were chatting and dancing and singing all night long … we couldn’t sleep,” Dosu Joseph marvelled in an interview with The Guardian. A nation that had been repressed so brutally, whose ethnic divisions had torn it apart so viciously, was united in its celebration of a moment that everybody, Igbo and Yoruba, Muslim and Christian, rich and poor alike, could savour. Bonfrère admitted after that game: “I came back because the players asked me to. And I believe in these players.”

The players believed in themselves too, even when Brazil and Argentina had them against the ropes. Even as their own government stopped them from expressing their God-given talent. Through darkness and pain, Nigeria’s football team had brought light and joy. Jon Obi Mikel, watching the match as a bleary-eyed kid on a school night, remembers it as the day he decided to take football seriously.

The squad, garlanded with their gold medals, were given a heroes’ welcome on their return to Lagos. Gifts rained down on them: luxury apartments, land, the cash bonuses that had been so difficult to find before the tournament began. But none of it mattered. Just like their compatriot Chioma Ajunwa, who had won the women’s long jump title the same day, they had made Olympic and African history. Perhaps Nwankwo Kanu summed it up best when he said: “Argentina is good. Nigeria is gold.”

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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