Today, this much beloved country of ours turns 59 years old and it has no doubt been a story of ups and downs, a journey of bends and straights and several moments of joy and tears.
There have been days when the country’s national teams upset the odds to beat more fancied foes. There have been players whose talents and wizardry have left the world of football gasping for their breaths. And there have been times when we have conquered the world.
Soccernet Nigeria brings you the ten most unforgettable moments for followers of the beautiful game in Nigeria since independence was gained almost six decades ago.
Winning the first match at the AFCON
The newly minted Republic of Nigeria made her debut at the AFCON in 1963. The Red Scorpions, as the nation’s football team, was then called, expectedly did not wreak wonders in Ghana, finding it hard to make it past the group stage after losing both games to Sudan and Egypt.
The team could not qualify for the next five editions mainly due to political turmoil on the home front but by the time the country returned to the AFCON 13 years after her first showing, the Christian Chukwu-skippered side was ready for business.
And when the coach Tiko Jelisavcic-tutored side spanked cup-holders Zaire 4-2 in the group opener, it announced the arrival of a new great to the continent and sent streams of joy down the length and breadth of a nation just recovering from the nightmare of an unfortunate civil war.
Nigeria returned from Ethiopia ’76 with the bronze medal that was celebrated all over the country as though she had won gold.
Nigeria’s first All Africa Games gold medal
Nigeria’s first triumph at a major football competition was in 1973 at the All-Africa Games football tournament which was the 2nd edition of the African Games men’s football tournament for men.
As hosts, Nigeria fans at home and abroad dreamt of winning the championship on home soil but the country was only just finding his feet having been to only one AFCON proper at that point.
It, therefore, an incredible achievement after Oyarhekua’s goals powered Nigeria past the likes of Ghana, Egypt, Algeria and Guinea to earn that first gold medal.
Hosting and lifting the AFCON for the first time
By 1980, Nigeria was ready to host the Nations Cup and driven by the tactical nous of coach Otto Gloria, the attacking prowess of Segun Odegbami and the defensive solidity of captain Christian Chukwu, the Green Eagles defeated all-comers to lift the prestigious trophy for the first time on home soil at the National Stadium in Lagos in front of one of the largest crowd of supporters to ever watch a match in Nigeria.
All with the nation’s President present in the stands. A day like no other before it.
Henry Nwosu described that triumph as being similar to ‘winning the World Cup’. While it made Felix Owolabi feel on top of the world.
Qualifying for the World Cup for the first time
For 14 long, heartbreaking years after that famous continental triumph, Nigeria tried in vain to make the step up to participate at the FIFA World Cup in vain.
Mexico 86 and Italia 90 were bridges just a bit too far to reach and it appeared as though the wait would never end. Then arrived that Dutch-delight Clemens Westerhoff.
Soon the Green Eagles metamorphosed into the Super Eagles, a team that played with a swagger that was uncommon among African sides at the time.
And thanks largely to Rashidi Yekini’s 8 goals during the qualifiers, Nigeria made it past South Africa, Congo, Ivory Coast and Algeria to finally book her spot at the Mundial for the very first time in 1994.
Scoring a first World Cup goal
Debutants, especially those from Africa, usually get taught harsh lessons in surviving heavy defeats but the Super Eagles had no plans to be so humiliated at their first World Cup appearance.
And those who thought otherwise received a huge shock after the Super Eagles had thoroughly dealt with Bulgaria – then one of Europe’s best teams in terms of talent and experience – in their tournament opener.
The first goal scored in that 3-0 win was followed by an iconic moment that no Nigerian who witnessed it has it happened would ever forget it till the day he breathes his last.
That Super Eagles’ first World Cup goal was nothing fancy, just a simple tap-in, however, the build-up to it, the significance of the strike and Rashidi Yekini’s passionate celebration contributed to making it a great moment.
Beating Spain at the World Cup
It was a modern-day David vs Goliath matchup. Undefeated in qualifying, Spain boasted highly-rated footballers who were at the peak of their careers.
Chief of those was Fernando Hierro and Raul both of whom were fresh from lifting the European Cup with Real Madrid.
Clear favourites from the moments the draw was concluded, the Spaniards’ – facing African opponents for the first time at the FIFA World Cup – should have known better than to take the Super Eagles lightly.
However, Javier Clemente’s side had to learn that lesson the hard way. Mutiu Adepoju glanced home a fine header to cancel out a Hierro opener before a Zubizarreta mistake brought proceedings back on level terms after Raul had yet again handed Spain the lead a couple of minutes into the second.
The finest moment of all however arrived in the 78th minute off the majestic foot of Sunday Oliseh. A long ball into the Spain box was headed out only as far as the midfielder and from 25 yards, he powered the ball back towards goal on the half-volley, leaving Zubizarreta with no chance.
Lifting the U-16 World title for the first time
While the national senior football team was struggling to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in the eighties, Nigeria’s cadet team made it to the 1985 FIFA U-16 World Championship, the first edition of the tournament, held in the People’s Republic of China.
The Nigeria youngsters defeated Italy and Costa Rica to make it past the group stage before getting the better if Hungary in the first knockout round.
The game against Africa brothers went to penalties before they were subdued as West Germany waited patiently in the final for the winner having dispatched the talented Brazilians in a seven-goal thriller.
However, a goal in each half by Jonathan Akpoborie and Igbinoba handed victory and the trophy to Nigeria and threw millions of countrymen into rapturous jubilations.
Surprise triumph at the AFCON 2013
When Nigeria lifted the Nations Cup for the second time ever at Tunisia 1994, it was a victory four years in the making.
However, by the time the skipper of that glorious 1994 squad, Stephen Keshi returned to coach the Super Eagles to another triumph in 2013, not many expected it, and not a few were surprised about it.
Yeah, Nigeria are perennial favourites at the AFCON but there were stronger nations in 2013 such as Didier Drogba’s Ivory Coast.
But Keshi was able to get the foreign-based players pulling in the same direction as the bunch of home based stars he dared to take to the tourney.
And by the time Sunday Mba volleyed home the winner in the Final against Burkina Faso, the whole country erupted into deep joy and celebrations.
Nigeria coach Keshi captured it a bit after the match: “Winning this is mainly for my nation – when I came on board a year and a half ago my dream was to make all Nigerians happy and to construct a great Nigerian team, We are not there yet, it’s still in process.
Defeating Brazil at the Atlanta Olympics
To win against Brazil was splendid. To do so in a seven-goal thriller, having been two goals behind for over 50 per cent of the tie was surreal.
Nigeria had arrived at the Olympics without much hype and fanfare. The country’s team for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta contained a few players from that ill-fated 1994 World Cup campaign in conjunction with a clutch of talent drawn from the U-17 side that had won the World Cup in 1993 and it was from that crop that a legend was born: Nwankwo Kanu.
Kanu and co were not spectacular in the group stage, managing to win two games, scored three goals, and picked up six points. It hadn’t been pretty, or particularly explosive, but it had been efficient.
Making it to the semifinal to face Brazil again – the Samba Boys had already beaten Nigeria in the group stage – was in itself a great achievement but the Nigerian lads wanted more.
Brazil raced to a 3-1 lead but Jo Bonfere’s men never gave up hope nor stopped believing and late in the game parity was restored before Nwankwo Kanu provided that moment sheer magic to sweep a golden goal home and Nigeria the ticket to move their first-ever gold medal match in history.
Winning Gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics
If the Nigeria- Brazil game was memorable, then the Argentina match that followed will forever be remembered as the moment Nigeria ruled the world.
Credit to Nigeria who were able to put out the euphoria of knocking out tournament favourite Brazil and be ready for another South American for.
Claudio Lopez headed the Albiceleste in front after three minutes, but Celestine Babayaro headed home the equalizer from a corner. Both teams traded goals once more before late drama once more swung the tie in Nigeria’s favour. Bonfrere had elected to drop Amunike for the final, starting Ikpeba instead.
However, the veteran made the difference at the death off the bench, beating the Argentine offside trap to volley home the winner from a free-kick. It was from that delicious strike that Nigeria’s greatest footballing moment was sired.