The then-African champions lost a pulsating encounter to the European giants, but their Dutch coach believes a momentary loss of concentration from his team was to blame for that painful defeat.
Former Nigeria Technical Adviser Clemens Westerhof has revealed that had a few of his players, especially Sunday Oliseh, not played to the gallery, the Super Eagles would have knocked out Italy and progress to the quarterfinal stage of USA ’94.
Westerhof assembled an exceptional group of players that went to the United States as African champions and began their campaign at the World Cup with a brilliant win over Bulgaria.
A 2-1 loss to a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina dampened morals a bit, but the Super Eagles regrouped to hand Greece a 2-0 defeat and top Group D.
Nigeria next faced Italy, a team that had claimed just one win in Group E and had only qualified for the knockout phase as one of the four teams who finished third in their groups.
Despite the Azzurri’s being former world champions and blessed with the talents of Roberto Baggio and Roberto Donadoni, they fell behind in the 25th minute to a fine Emmanuel Amuneke strike.
After the break, Italy went a man down after Gianfranco Zola was red-carded for elbowing Austin Eguavoen. Paolo Maldini should have followed the pint-sized forward moments later after he pulled down Rashidi Yekini as the striker ran through on goal, but the referee only showed him a yellow.
With minutes left to play, Baggio pulled Italy back on levelled terms and scored a penalty kick deep in extra time to send Nigeria crashing out of their debut World Cup.
Westerhof, though, thinks Arrigo Sachi’s men would not have equalized had a couple of Nigerian players, including Sunday Oliseh, not been showboating to impress the fans.
“We played well. It was one-nil for us,” the former Feyenoord manager told The Vanguard.
“Simone (ed.: it was Zola), the Italian left attacker bagged a red card, and he went out. So we played against ten men.
“Sunday Oliseh played the ball through Roberto Baggio’s legs and made jokes with spectators, but Baggio got the ball back and made a cross to Mossi, Mossi went with the ball to the sideline, and who was there, he found Baggio, and he crossed the ball to him.
“He scored to bring the scoreline to 1-1. It was two minutes before the end of the game.
“It was terrible. You must concentrate to the last minute. It was a loss of concentration on the part of a player, but I don’t like singling out a player when we lose. Football is a team game. We lost concentration in the last minute and paid for it.”