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Olympic gold at Atlanta 96 was Nigeria’s best hour

For the reason that Dream Staff shocked the world to assert gold in Atlanta 25 years in the past, this football-crazy nation has not had it so good

For the reason that flip of the millennium, just one World Cup has been received by a rustic from exterior Europe – the 2002 version, by which Brazil reigned supreme.

The truth is, of the 5 tournaments within the 2000s, three have been all-European affairs. This sample confirms the sense that Uefa nations have by no means been extra dominant on the world stage, and the dynamics of worldwide geopolitics don’t recommend a reversal of this development any time quickly.

As Europe’s hegemonic management has elevated, Africa’s footprint on the World Cup has decreased.

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After the strides made by Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal and Ghana within the 90s and noughties, African illustration reached a nadir as soon as once more in 2018, as no facet from the continent progressed past the Group Stage in Russia.

After failing to construct on their momentum at a crucial juncture in historical past, it appears the prospect has utterly gone, the door shut without end.

The Olympic Video games soccer occasion, nonetheless, has served discover on a few events of simply what is feasible for Africa if the celebs align.

It has additionally handily offered one thing of a refuge from Europe’s pervasive affect, with their nations not often prioritizing it in any significant means.

Cameroon famously received gold in 2000 on the Sydney Olympics, however Nigeria is the continent’s most embellished flag-bearer, having received each medal on provide within the males’s soccer occasion.

In 1996, the self-styled Dream Staff blazed a path, surprising the world by storming to victory on the Atlanta video games.

The sensational pair of wins – over Brazil and Argentina within the semi-final and ultimate respectively – that received Nigeria gold have entered into folklore and spawned a thousand songs of adulation within the 25 ensuing years. Nevertheless, outstanding because it sounds, the passing of time has maybe dulled the appreciation for the sheer scale of the achievement.

There’s the truth that the 1996 Olympics featured, greater than most different Video games, an astonishing quantity of future footballing greats.

Being an under-23 competitors, the soccer occasion has sometimes allowed a glimpse of a number of the sport’s stars of their childhood. For instance, the 2 titans of the age, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, graced the competitors of their teenage years.

Nevertheless, the sheer variety of family names throughout the board that competed in 1996 simply takes the cake, even leaving apart for now the rosters that the aforementioned Brazil and Argentina put ahead.

Hidetoshi Nakata would go on to change into an icon of Japanese soccer for a few years. Cuahtemoc Blanco scored at three World Cups for Mexico. Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro had been the defensive lynchpins of Italy’s World Cup triumph ten years later. Raul and Fernando Morientes received a number of Champions League titles at Actual Madrid.

Claude Makelele, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord went on to icon standing within 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 doesn’t even cowl everybody.

This not solely locations Nigeria’s feat in context, nevertheless it makes an necessary level: the sector was robust, and the competitors was stiff.

Inside that, Nigeria weren’t overlooked, as they paraded a squad based mostly on their debut World Cup facet 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 on the again.

Then there was the way by which it was received.

A gradual begin (Nigeria solely scored one aim in open play within the Group Stage), after which the problem slowly ramping up gave the sense of a group getting stronger because the match progressed.

This wider theme was mirrored on a smaller, extra contained scale in these historic ultimate two wins – in each matches, Jo Bonfrere’s facet wanted to claw again deficits, and peaked at simply the correct moments to say their superiority. In whole, over the course of the semi-final and ultimate, Nigeria had been stage for 54 and forward for lower than three of the whole 184 minutes performed.

The emotion of battling again, not simply from 3-1 down, however from the frustration of a missed penalty towards a Brazil facet that includes Ronaldo, Bebeto, Juninho Paulista, Roberto Carlos and Aldair was not like something the nation had seen to that time, or that it has seen since.

The enduring photographs: 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 general public consciousness.

Three days later, the trick was repeated towards scorching favourites Argentina.

Moments of fast considering from Amokachi and Amuneke turned the tide of the sport following Hernan Crespo’s second-half penalty, and noticed a star-studded line-up containing the likes of Diego Simeone, Javier Zanetti, Claudio Lopez and Ariel Ortega depart Athens empty-handed.

There’s a sure irony right here in the truth that, usually, a scarcity of canniness has usually been blamed for Africa’s underperformance on the worldwide stage.

Two years prior, the Tremendous Eagles themselves offered a chief instance of this, failing to maintain the ball and their lead towards an Italy facet that was a person mild. That Nigeria had been in a position pull off sleights of hand (and foot) towards a number of the most streetwise footballing nations on the earth in a means buttresses the sense of the Olympics as its personal self-contained occasion, and made the victories even sweeter.

By no means earlier than, or once more, has Nigeria had it so good.

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