Fans of the Nigeria national football team thought it couldn’t get any better than the 1994 golden age. That year, the Super Eagles secured their second African Cup of Nations title and made their World Cup debut.
In the USA, they topped a group featuring Argentina and eventual semi-finalists Bulgaria. Then, in the knockout phase, they led finalists Italy for 74 minutes before losing in extra time. Our friends at betPawa in Nigeria argue that while 1994 was great, 1996’s legacy will live longest:
What the Nigeria national football team achieved in 1996
1996 didn’t start so promisingly. The Nigeria national football team withdrew from their African Cup of Nations defence due to issues with hosts, South Africa. Thankfully, there were other major sports events taking place that year.
Despite their continental success, there wasn’t much expectation around Nigeria at the 1996 Olympics. Previous participations had proven forgettable: they’d won none and lost seven of their nine matches, finishing bottom of every group.
Then there was the competition. Brazil had Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Bebeto. Argentina boasted Hernan Crespo, Ariel Ortega and Diego Simeone.
The European sides were strong too: Spain sent Raul and Gaizka Mendieta, France selected Robert Pires, and Claude Makelele and Italy included Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta.
There was just one thing those squads were lacking – the gold medals – and that’s because they came back to Nigeria.
Taribo West, Celestine Babayaro, Sunday Oliseh, Jay-Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu formed a spectacular Nigeria national football team. The results they celebrated that July and August were even more spectacular.
Jo Bonfrere’s men kicked off with clean sheets and triumphs over Hungary and Japan before losing narrowly to Brazil. Their place in the quarter-finals was confirmed though, and that was where things got really magical.
The Olympic Eagles beat Mexico 2-0 to earn a chance to claim revenge over Brazil. Things started badly, with Flavio Conceicao scoring in the first minute, and they were 3-1 down at halftime.
Victor Ikpeba and Kanu struck in the last 13 minutes to take the tie to extra time. Kanu fired the golden goal that delivered a historic win.
That victory guaranteed Nigeria would become the second African nation to win an Olympic football medal, following Ghana’s 1992 bronze.
Again, the final against Argentina began terribly, with Claudio Lopez giving the favourites a third-minute lead. Babayaro equalised but Crespo put the South Americans back in front with a 50th-minute penalty.
Once more, Nigeria changed everything with a pair of late goals. Daniel Amokachi made it 2-2 in the 74th minute, and Emmanuel Amunike grabbed the gold-medal-winning goal in the 90th minute.
How 1996 continues to deliver for the Nigeria national football team
Golden Nigeria national football team moments haven’t been so frequent since. Despite reaching seven more African Cup of Nations semi-finals, they only lifted the trophy once.
Five further World Cup appearances ended in the round-of-16 or earlier. Three of the four this century didn’t last longer than the first round.
However, the current squad is the most talented in some time, and it carries a close connection to that glorious 1996. Several of the players likely to star in the next Super Eagles success were born 24 years ago.
Wilfred Ndidi, Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho are children of that memorable year. So are Ola Aina and Joe Aribo.
Assuming sports events resume and qualifying goes well, all five should be in Cameroon next year and Qatar in 2022. Will 1996 give birth to further Nigerian heroics?
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