The 1996 Men’s Olympic Football tournament in Atlanta remains a golden memory in the minds of Nigerians especially the then Super Eagles players who broke the jinx amid world top football sides to lift the trophy and wear gold medals.
Before the marvelous campaign at the 1996 Olympics, Nigeria preceded it with a jaw-dropping performance at the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the USA.
However, while many felt that was a one-off performance for the Super Eagles, the players showed the whole world that there is more they can do and victory at the 1996 centennial Olympic was an effort to reckon with.
On Monday 3rd August 2020 being exactly 24 years since the unprecedented victory, some of the then Super Eagles players recalls their journey to the milestone.
In an interview published on FIFA official website, Emmanuel Amuneke said: “Going into the tournament we had the self-belief that if we applied ourselves well we could do something great for ourselves and the country.”
“Don’t forget we had some players who featured for the senior national team at the 1994 World Cup.”
The competition was taken seriously by different countries as many had their best players in good shape.
During the tournament, Brazil boasted with Roberto Carlos, Juninho Paulista, Rivaldo, Bebeto, and its phenomenal Ronaldo.
They seemed close favorites.
On its part, Argentina shone with Roberto Ayala, Javier Zanetti, Diego Simeone, Marcelo Gallardo, Ariel Ortega, Claudio Lopez and Hernan Crespo.
Italy’s squad featured Gigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, Damiano Tommasi and boy wonder Domenico Morfeo; France sent Claude Makelele, Vincent Candela, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord; and Spain selected Gaizka Mendieta, Ivan de la Pena, Raul and Fernando Morientes.
The presence of these squads threatened the success of many teams and even shattered dreams except for the Super Eagles dream team.
The Super Eagles’ campaign started with Kanu’s lone goal against Hungary before Jay-Jay Okocha sealed a 2-0 win over Japan that guaranteed Nigeria a Round-of-16 place.
A super strike by Okocha and Babayaro gave Nigeria a 2-0 win and sealed a quarter-final victory over Mexico.
Nigeria’s biggest nightmare in the tournament was the semi-final match against seemingly invincible Brazil which the Super Eagles had to fight back from the 3-1 lead by Brazil.
Kanu and Victor Ikpeba pulled the tie to ensure a come-back and Nigeria were in the final.
Amuneke told FIFA.com, “Beating Brazil boosted our confidence because it was a dramatic match. We were almost out, but we fought and pulled it off.”
On the other hand, Argentina had beaten Spain 4-0 and Portugal 2-0 to reach the decider, and their status as favourites was fortified by taking a third-minute lead.
Babayaro equaliser with a fierce header restored the lead for Daniel Passarella’s side from the spot.
Kanu’s header in the 74th minute on a long throw helped Daniel Amokachi to lob goalkeeper Pablo Cavallero.
Then, in the 90th minute, Argentina attempted to play the offside trap to combat a Nigeria free-kick, only to leave substitute Amuneke free to volley home. The ‘Dream Team’ had turned Nigeria into a dreamland.
Jay Jay Okocha said, “This means everything to Nigeria. Football is the one thing in Nigeria that brings us together.
“For the people back in my country, this may be the happiest day of their lives.”
Amuneke explained to FIFA.com: “Two days before the final, our coach, Jo Bonfrere, told me that some people were complaining that I was not playing at my best for the team.
“But in the match, he told me to stay warmed up and, as fate would have it, I scored the winning goal.
“It was the manner in which we won the competition that made us incredibly happy,”
“We always seemed to come back from behind in games – and against top opposition.
“We played the giants of North and South America: Mexico in the quarter-final, Brazil in the semi-final and beat Argentina in the final.
“I had a wonderful tournament. My coach, Jo Bonfrere, said to me, ‘To really show your ability, you need to score. You’re doing everything right, you’re working hard for the team, creating chances for the team and if you can get a goal in the final, that would make you stand above the rest.’ I ended up scoring in the final which contributed in helping us win that gold medal.
“The character, maturity and mentality of us all is what made us into champions.
“The love that we had for each other made it possible because we were one strong family.
“I remember when the (Nigerian) FA were unhappy with Jo Bonfrere and they decided to bring in another coach and lay him off just a couple of days before the Olympics.
“We were already in America and as a team we said, ‘If you’re sending him away, then you’ll need to find new players.’ That spirit alone showed and made us believe that we were all in this together and that it would make us into champions.”