Football remains the largest followed sport in Nigeria with my estimation to be around 85% of active followers of the game both online and offline. This is evident the dominance of the Nigeria fans in their various clubs fan page across many social media platforms especially Facebook in particular. In Chelsea Facebook fan page for example, out of every six comments on a post, you are likely to see two Nigerians replies and the Africans as well. On match days like weekend football fans fill most of the viewing canters to the brim and a whole lot defies the night to watch UEFA Champions League football. Such is the blood of football in an average Nigeria sport lover’s vein.
For those of them who were privilege to have watch the US Atlanta 1996 Olympics have continued to testify that it remain the countries best outing on a football stage. One amazing thing about that squad unlike what we mostly have now is that, they were mainly locally made players who plied their trade in the local league.
The bond, the vigour and the enthusiasm of that team really has stood the sands of time. Johannes Bonfere with his assistant Musa Abdulahi were able to assemble these players remains the most reverend coach in Nigeria football history and a big kudos to him. After watching the clips some years back especially the finales against football power house Brazil, I gave that squad a nod.
The Nigeria dream team a name for the under 23 national travel to US ahead of time to start training and little was known about them as their training section were out of the media.
Their first game was a 1-0 win against Hungary with Kanu Nwankwo only goal at the 44th minute. The second victory was against Japan in a 2-0 score line with goal goals by Tijani Babangida andJay Okocha at the 82nd and 90th minute and finally suffered their first defeat in a 1-0 loss against Brazil but made it to the next round on the tournament where they faced Mexico: whom the dream team defeated in a 2-0 win wwith Jay-Jay Okocha getting his second goal of the competition and Celestine Banayero getting the second goal at 20th and 82nd minute respectively.
This victory set the stage for the dream team to meet the world power in the semi finals on the tournament with Brazil again. Brazill remained the favourite having Ronaldo, Bebeto and Rivaldo in their ranks and in the first minute of this game went ahead to lead by 1-0 but fought back to level with Roberto Carlos own goal at the 20th minutes. This infuriated the Brazilian team that went ahead to scored their 2nd goal and 3rd on the 28th and 38th minute before the half time whistle. One would have thought that it was an over game for the dream team with world class like Brazil.
But after the game the dream team stepped up their game knowing very well they had nothing to lose made in 3-2 and 3-3 goal line with Victor Ikpeba’s 0 yard screamer at 78th and Kanu Nwakwos skillful and technical equalizer at the extra time of the game. This took the game to extra time for the teams to decide the winner.
The FIFA rule as of that time had it that the team with the’’ golden goal’’; the first team to score in the extra time win the match and the Brazilian teams were so unfortunate that 4th minute into the extra time that Kanu Nkwakwo grab second goal of the game from 16 yards to through the stadium into chaotic jubilation and that game has been rated the greatest Olympics game ever. This victory set the final stage fir the dream team to play Argentina at the finals on august 3rd 1996 at the Samford stadium in Athens, Georgia before 86, 117 sports fans.
The Argentine went on to lead that match on the 3rd minutes but Nigeria got an equalizer via Celestin Babayero’s 28th minute goal. Hernan Crespo put Argentina ahead once a again courtesy a penalty taken at the 50th minutes. The dream stage another comeback in the 74th minute via Daniel Amokachi’s goal. The Argentina goal keeper Pablo Cavallero was beaten at the 89th minute when Daniel Amokachi escaped the offside rule to score his second for the match to end it 3-2 in Nigeria’s favour thereby winning the gold medal of the male football team to become the first African team to do so in history.
The question that comes mind to an average Nigeria is, when the national team players will replicate this kind of adventurous act in the world of football that has all the big names you can think of?.
Is it possible and when?
The Atlanta 1996 team will forever be cherished in our hearts and football will remained a strong unifying factor in a country of about 250 languages. The current generation of the national team players should look back to this time in history and make efforts to replicate this out by having that lion spirit to play for the love of the fatherland while making rewards a secondary issue.