The joy of Atlanta ’96, 23 years after – Akintunde Adeyinka P
Atlanta ’96 remains one of the most unforgettable Olympic Games for football and sports lovers in Nigeria. Nigeria won six medals overall, two gold, one silver and one bronze medals. But the gold medal the men football team won remains the biggest highlight, and an evergreen story of joy and pride for the country. It is 23 years today since that feat which marked the first time any African team will claim the Olympic football gold.
The journey to the football gold medal for the country was not a smooth one. Nigeria then faced serious political issues that had claimed a lot of lives. General elections had taken place three years earlier, and it was believed to have been won by Chief M. K. O. Abiola. Abiola was in detention at the time of Atlanta ’96, a year after famous activist Ken Saro-Wiwa had been executed by the Sani Abacha military junta.
Football was the only source of hope and joy for Nigerians then, as the country had just won the Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia two years earlier, and also participated in her first-ever FIFA World Cup in the United States, where the Super Eagles progressed to the Round of 16, losing 1–2 to eventual runners-up, Italy at extra time.
Nigeria experienced one more pain after General Abacha stopped the Super Eagles from going to defend their African title in South Africa early in 1996. This was because Nelson Mandela, who was then President of South Africa, had asked that Nigeria be suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations, because of the killings of Saro-Wiwa and his four other Ogoni rights agitators. It was therefore hoped that the summer Olympics would bring joy to Nigerians.
The Dream Team I of Nigeria, coached by Dutchman Johannes Bonfere, was grouped alongside Hungary, Japan and Brazil. Bonfere Jo himself almost lost his job just before the start of the Olympics as the team struggled to win matches. They had just lost 1–5 to Togo in a friendly, and at a point, he left the job due to unpaid wages, but was convinced to come back by the players.
The team began Atlanta ’96 with a 1–0 win over Hungary from the goal by Nwankwo Kanu, just before halftime. The second game saw the Dream Team playing a not-too-fancy football against Japan, but they got the needed three points. Two late goals from Tijjani Babangida and Austin Jay-Jay Okocha, both after 80 minutes, got the job done.
Nigeria marched on to the third group match, against Brazil, with qualification already sealed. The Brazilians had lost to Japan and beaten Hungary, and so they needed the three points against Nigeria. They got it, beating the Dream Team 1–0 with Ronaldo’s goal. They even went ahead to top the group, haven secured superior goal difference. Fate had plans to bring both sides together again.
Nigeria faced Mexico in the quarter-finals, and it turned out a very simple match. Okocha opened the scoring after 20 minutes with a missile from outside the area. Legendary Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos again had no answer when 17-year old Celestine Babayaro pounced on a loose ball in the area and slammed home to seal the re-match against Brazil, in the semi-finals
That second encounter against Brazil turned out the defining moment of the Olympic Games that year. Brazil had just won the FIFA World Cup two years earlier in the USA, and they had just beaten Ghana 4–2 in the quarter-finals.
Flavio Conceição opened scoring for the Seleçao in the first minute, and minutes later, Roberto Carlos scored an own-goal to the relief of Nigerians. From then on, the Dream Team went through pains.
Brazil scored two more goals. First Bebeto tapped in after goalkeeper Dosu Joseph had got a hand to Ronaldo’s shot, and then Conceicao got his second of the afternoon after a quick one-two on the edge of the box. All hope was lost for Nigeria.
But the never-say-die spirit, which the Dream Team had been exhibiting since the beginning of the competition, was reignited in the 78th minute with Victor Ikpeba scoring a fine goal from outside the box. Hope rose again, and Nigeria held on to that hope.
In the last minute, a long throw-in from Okocha caused havoc and the ball fell to Kanu’s long legs, and he smartly flicked the ball up and smashed it past goalkeeper Dida to equalise and send the match into extra-time. Four minutes into extra time, with the golden-goal rule then in place, Kanu scored again, dribbling past one defender and smashing the ball into the net.
The final was against Argentina, another South American power-house, filled with star players. They took the lead yet again three minutes into the game, when Claudio López got at the end of a great cross and smacked in a header. Nigeria responded immediately, just like in the semi-finals, with a header from Babayaro. Argentina scored a rather controversial penalty-goal early in the second half to lead again, but the Dream Team came back, the long throwing from Okocha coming handy again. This time, it fell to Amokachi and he scored.
Emmanuel Amunike, who scored the goals that gave Nigeria the 1994 AFCON title, had the final say yet again, coming off from the bench to beat the Argentine offside trap and volley home the winner from a free-kick.
It was late night in Nigeria, but massive celebrations broke out round the country. People went out partying and drinking, as beer parlours were filled.
The team returned to a heroic welcome in Lagos and were showered with gifts and bonuses. Many of them were teenagers or young adults, but they remain celebrated for generations to come, inspiring millions and putting a smile on faces that needs it, as it is difficult for a Nigerian to forget a wonderful moment like the 1996 Olympic Games.