Nigeria made history as the first African nation to become Olympic football champions at the Atlanta Games. It was a victory that took the entire globe spellbound and bewildered, reports TUNDE LIADI.
With only a few days before the 25th anniversary of the epoch making event of winning the soccer gold medal at the 1996 Olympics Games, some of the chief protagonists recounts one of the standpoints in Nigeria’s football history.
For Taribo West, the former Auxerre, AC Milan and Inter Milan defender, that 3-2 triumphs over Argentina in the final is still fresh in his memory.
“The Olympics in 1996 is one of the most fantastic periods in my career,” West reminisces to BBC Sport.”We had a team that could match any in the world.”
Sunday Oliseh was a defensive midfielder of class then and despite winning the Africa Cup of Nations two years earlier and also featuring at the FIFA World Cup in the United States, he said the Olympics gold was his proudest moment as a footballer.
“It still felt like a dream to me. One I did not want to wake up from. In my entire soccer career, I had never felt as proud as this particular moment,” Oliseh who went ahead to play for Juventus and Borussia Dortmund noted in his recently launched autobiography titled Audacity to Refuse. “Immediately after the final whistle went, the world no longer referred to us as the Green Eagles, we were coronated the Super Eagles, a historical and symbolic fundamental change from that final minute to this day. Super for the Superb effort to make Nigeria’s football golden.
“We were ecstatic. We yelled, cried for joy and hugged each other as we finally noticed the fans in the stands. Unlike prior games, most neutral supporters were all wearing some form of Nigerian colours. Some had practically painted their faces green-white-green and they were not Nigerians.”
He also described the special bond that existed among the players in the dressing room and his emotional feeling at winning the historic first gold medal for Africa in the football event.
“We saw tears of joy in the eyes of our Nigerian compatriots in the stands,” Oliseh added.
“Finally in the dressing room, we, for the first time had time to ourselves. There was a pouring out of emotions of joy, love, laughter, shouting, and singing like I had never witnessed in my whole career. It was sheer hysteria.”
Yet Garba Lawal who was a defensive midfielder then was delighted to be part of history and he described the won gold medal as the biggest recognition accorded him.
“As an athlete Olympic is the biggest tournament in the world to participate also is plus to participants is very important to witness it,” Lawal told NationSport. “My brother, winning the Olympic is the biggest in our career credits goes to the coach Bonfrere Joe and the players because we have exceptional players in our group.”
The former Roda JC midfielder rued Nigeria’s inability to qualify for 2020 Olympics football event which he said has deprived eligible youths the chance to further on the impressive golden bronze won by Samson Siasia led Under 23 team at Rio 2016.
Similarly, Joseph Dosu was the goaltender for the Dream Team in Atlanta didn’t hide his reservation regarding Nigeria’s absence in the men’s and women’s football event of Tokyo 2020.
He charged the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) and other football stakeholders to ensure that the needful is done for the country not to miss out on other future global competitions such as this.
“For me it is just unfortunate that Nigeria’s men’s and women’s did not qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics,” Dosu told NationSport. “It is a country that has won the Olympic Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in Soccer. It is painful. We need to go back to the drawing board to try and make the necessary corrections before the next Olympics.
“We can’t be running to the drawing board at all times when we make a mistake. As a giant of Africa, we should be qualifying for every soccer competition.”
The goalkeeper who went ahead to keep most of the 1998 FIFA World Cup qualifying matches before a an auto accident ended his playing career, said they were thrilled to win the Olympic Games to prove critics who wrote them off before the competition wrong.
“I think winning the Gold medal in Atlanta 1996 was something we wanted for ourselves because when we were leaving the country we were tagged as Dreamers by journalists just because we lost to Togo 3-1 in our last warm-up game before we left for Atlanta Georgia,” Dosu told NationSport.
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Amuneke, the scorer of the winning goal in the final against Argentina, said he was happy to be in the position to put Nigeria in the spotlight and that he will continue to cherish it.
“It was a very important goal for me and not only about scoring because it was a goal that gave us the gold medal,” Amuneke who went ahead to secure a memorable move to Barcelona told NationSport.
“It was a goal that also was important because in that game if I could remember I came on from the bench and I was able to contribute my part which is scoring the goal. But the most important thing is that the goal gave us the gold medal so for me I cherish it till date. I by that being privileged to play at the Olympics bearing in mind that it happen only once every four years.
“And I was given the opportunity to be part of the team. I’m grateful to God about that. “
Amuneke who recently left his post in Egypt as Sporting Director to Misr Lel Makassa, enthused that Nigeria’s path to the gold medal in Atlanta Georgia in 1996 which Cameroon also repeated four years later in Sydney, Australia showed that African football has come of age.
He also stated that the impressive run of both countries and that of Ghana at Barcelona, 92 have no doubt helped to increase the slots of Africa at the quadrennial competition.
“Cameroon won the Olympics gold medal four years later in Sydney 2000 Olympics,” Amuneke further opined. “They beat a great Spanish side in the final. It showed that African football has a space to make something meaningful when it comes to global football.
“It gave Africa the possibility of having more slots. We just have to see how we can develop our football, players and that will afford us the capacity and possibility of winning the World Cup. It won’t be easy but if we are positive minded, it is possible to win it if we are able to do what is right.”
Another player in the all-conquering 1996 Olympic Games gold medal was Mobi Oparaku who went ahead to represent Nigeria at France ’98 World Cup, disclosed that he was more than thrilled to be Olympic Champion at the final blast of the referee’s whistle.
He said at the full time he initially didn’t know how to celebrate the victory and that he has not felt the inner joy he felt the day they won the gold medal for Nigeria.
“How can I describe that experience? It is indescribable because it was an amazing feeling. We were all happy and elated to be the first nation in Africa to achieve that feat,” Oparaku, who is now the Team Manager of Heartland FC), told NationSport. “We were able to overcome all the odds we faced in Atlanta Georgia and we were delighted that this feat opened up many doors to opportunity for us. I was able to leave my Belgian club to another better one.”
But Oparaku was speechless knowing that the Nigeria football team was not among the teams competing for the gold medal in Tokyo, adding it was time the leadership of football in the country took responsibility for the dwindling fortune of the sport.
“I could not believe it that we didn’t qualify for the Olympics in the men’s and women’s football event. We have the talent but our main undoing is the administrative set up,” he explained. “We can still do things correctly. I’m tired of saying we should go back to the drawing board because I doubt if there is any space left on that board. Let’s try and do the right thing.”
Nigeria’s results at 1996 Olympics
GROUP D MATCHES
Vs. 1-0 Hungary
Vs. 0-1 Brazil
Vs. 2-0 Japan
Vs. 2-0 Mexico
Vs. 4-3 Brazil (aet)
Vs. 3-2 Argentina