Sometimes the most magical moments happen when no one expects them to – and football is the reigning champion when it comes to these moments in sports. There’s nothing like a good underdog story to inspire us and give hope to the dreamers that anything is possible. It's stories of that ilk that make us fall in love with football all over again and remember why we love this sport so much. Much like Leicester City’s 15/16 triumph or Greece’s victory in 2004 , and the many more David vs. Goliath-esque triumphs that continue to inspire us.
When you hear the words ‘Olympics’ and ‘Nigerian football’, one year stands out in particular. No, it’s not the year Nigeria first participated in it nor the year they first won a football match. In 1996, Nigeria became the first African football team to win a gold medal at the Olympics. Nigeria first participated in the Olympic Games in 1952 and has ever since sent athletes to compete in every summer Olympics (Except for the boycotted 1976 Olympics in protest of Apartheid).
Coached by Dutchman Johannes Bonfrere. This team had youthful exuberance, speed, technicality, endurance and patriotism. The players brought suspense and excitement to the Olympic arena like never before. They started their journey to the final with a 1-0 win over Hungary and a 2-0 victory over Japan. They lost 1-0 to Brazil but that still allowed them to go to the next round. The Super Eagles triumphed over Mexico and their legendary goalkeeper Jorge Campos and scored 2 goals past him, the game ended 2-0 and meant that they would face Brazil in the semi-finals.
But on 31 July 1996, never had the 78,587 spectators at the Stanford Stadiums seen such a turnaround in one game.Brazil, with incredible players like Bebeto, Juninho, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, and Roberto Carlos dominated the game from the start and were leading 3-1 before halftime. The Brazilians were sitting comfortably, they had previously beaten Nigeria 1-0 in the group stage and they seemed to have the measure of them again. As a result, Brazil's coach began to substitute his key players like Ronaldo and Juninho to preserve them for the final.
Just 12 minutes away from losing any hope of reaching the final, the Nigerian team like wounded tigers woke up from their slumber when Victor Ikpeba started the comeback and made it 3-2. They began increasing the pressure on Brazil and fired from every angle as the Brazilians struggled to contain them. And just 2 minutes away from fulltime, Kanu turned and cheekily chipped the ball over Dida and Nigeria equalized!
The match went on to golden goal. Just 4 minutes of extra time and Kanu scores and won it. They’re going to play Argentina in the final! When speaking to those who were in Lagos, they comment that “on the streets of Lagos, everyone came out.” Another one of the guys recounts “Everyone was in a celebration mood. Muslims, Christians, Ibo, Yourba and Hausa people sat together and drank and talked about the game. People gathered in groups, sang and ran across country in celebration of the victory. The difference didn’t seem to matter anymore. It was unbelievable how football did that!”
The only one obstacle left in Nigeria’s way of winning the tournament and gaining their first ever Gold medal was Argentina. The final started and in the first 3 minutes, Argentina took the lead with an early goal by C. López, however just twenty minutes later, Nigeria found an equaliser. Just a few minutes after the start of the second half, Argentina were awarded a penalty, Crespo stepped up to take it and fired Argentina in the lead once again. With just 16 minutes left to save their Olympic dream, Nigeria once again equalized with a goal from Amokachi, the comeback was on! Then in the 90th minute, Nigeria won a free kick and Amunike took advantage of a poor offside trap and beat goalkeeper Cavallero to score the winner for Nigeria. Legendary referee Pierluigi Collina blew the whistle, the game finished Nigeria 3-2 Argentina.
The man who was in Lagos explained how “These players are our heroes. They gave hope to the people and unified us. Football unified us. I will never forget that day, every single person was out in the streets celebrating. The whole of Africa celebrated as one.” One of the guys said when I asked them about the final. “I never knew football had such power to unify and bring people together from all backgrounds and religions. It was beautiful.” That was Nigeria’s first ever Olympic football gold medal. The team came into America early; way before every other team. The players trained in Tallahassee, Florida, unnoticed and unannounced then captivated almost everyone’s hearts and won their support.