In the annals of dating, there is BC and AD. This way, many football gurus in Nigeria denote the march of Nigerian football thusly: BW (Before Westerhof) and AW (After Westehof)!
I don’t dabble in controversies, save to say that after I wrote of Nigeria’s historic debut in the World Cup in 1994 I have been called upon from far and wide to tell the story of Nigeria’s epochal winning of the first African Olympic soccer gold in Atlanta 1996.
Let it be known here that our beloved heroine Chioma Ajunwa made history by winning the Olympic gold in long jump in the selfsame Atlanta 1996 games. Football indeed is not the end of the world!
Be that as it may, after the departure of Coach Clemens Westerhof from the Nigerian scene, his sidekick Jo Bonfrere took up the task of coaching the Nigerian football team to the Atlanta 96 Olympic Games. He was ably assisted by Musa Abdulahi. The Olympic team was made up of Under-23 players with three overage players added to the list, namely Uche Okechukwu, Daniel Amokachi and Emmanuel Amuneke.
In a tough Group D featuring Brazil, Japan and Hungary, the Nigerian team came second to Brazil in the qualifying series. Nigeria played her first match against Hungary on July 21, 1996 at the Citrus Bowl, Orlando, winning 1-0 courtesy of a 44th minute goal by team captain Kanu Nwankwo.
Legendary referee Collina of Italy handled Nigeria’s next match against Japan on July 23 before 22,734 fans at the Citrus Bowl, Orlando. Tijani Babangida scored Nigeria’s first goal in the 82nd minute while Augustine Jay-Jay Okocha scored the second goal on the dot of the 90th minute from the penalty spot, thus sealing a 2-0 victory.
Before 55,650 spectators at the Orange Bowl, Miami on July 25 soccer giants Brazil defeated Nigeria 1-0 through Ronaldo’s 30th minute strike. Nigeria qualified for the quarterfinal knockout stage as the second-placed team in the group.
In the quarterfinal played on July 28 at Legion Field, Birmingham before 44,788 spectators, Nigeria beat Mexico 2-0 with goals coming from Okocha in the 20th minute and Celestine Babayaro in the 84th minute.
July 31, 1996 was Nigeria’s date with destiny as the team was pitched in an epic semifinal battle with Brazil. Referee Garcia Aranda took charge before 78,587 spectators at the Sanford Stadium, Athens. Brazil scored the first goal in the very first minute of the match through Flavio Conceicao.
Ace Brazilian defender Roberto Carlos diverted the ball into his own net in the 20th minute to gift Nigeria with the equalizer through an own goal. Bebeto regained the lead for Brazil in the 28th minute when he beat the Nigerian goalkeeper Joseph Dosu.
Flavio Conceicao shot Brazil further ahead in the 38th minute for a 3-1 halftime lead. Victor Ikpeba pulled a goal back for Nigeria in the 78th minute. Then the game turned on its head as Skipper Kanu Nwankwo’s “show”, as he scored the equalizer in the 90th minute, thus dragging the match into extra-time in which a winner would emerge through the scoring of the sudden-death goal. Kanu Nwankwo scored the killer goal in the 94th minute, thereby sending Nigeria into the final of the Atlanta 96 soccer competition.
The matchup for the gold medal was against Argentina, the star-studded team that had beaten Portugal 2-0 in the other semifinal. The attendance for the final match stood at a giddy 86,117 spectators at Sanford Stadium, Athens with Italy’s referee Collina in-charge. Claudio Lopez gave Argentina an early lead in the 3rd minute.
Celestine Babayaro out-jumped all in the Argentine box to head in Nigeria’s equalizer in the 28th minute. Nigerian defender Taribo West gifted the Argentines with a penalty in the 50th minute which was converted by Hernan Crespo. Daniel Amokachi scored Nigeria’s equalizer in the 74th minute. Emmanuel Amuneke stabbed home Nigeria’s winning goal in the 90th minute, leaving the dogged Argentines stunned. Nigeria thus made history as the first African country to win the Olympic soccer gold medal.
According to Sunday Oliseh, the midfield anchor of the team: “This team had youthful exuberance, speed, technicality, endurance and patriotism. The players brought suspense and entertainment to the Olympic arena like never before… The team came into America early, way before every other team. The players trained in Tallahassee, Florida, unnoticed and unannounced. We left as the most loved and supported soccer team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.”