July 31, 1996
Spanish referee José María García-Aranda took another glance at his watch and noted that only a few seconds remained for him to blow the final whistle of an already enthralling semifinal clash between the powerhouse of African and South American football.
Brazil’s early superiority had seen them score three goals and a Roberto Carlos own goal in the opening 40 minutes before Victor Ikpeba made it 3-2 midway through the second period.
No one could have guessed there was still a lot more to come as the game drew to a tense close.
Then it happened. A long throw. Nwankwo Kanu’s silky legs. A skilful lift of the ball over scrambling Brazilian defenders and into the net. 3-3.
But Kanu was not done. And just four minutes into the first half of extra time, the Nigerian team captain created enough space to slam home a golden goal winner that sent the Africans to their first-ever final appearance at the Games.
Another excellent comeback win over Argentina a few days later secured Nigeria’s first and only gold medal to date in football.
And Kanu, who turned 20 barely four hours after that famous triumph over Brazil, sealed his place among Nigeria’s greats.
He was already romancing with greatness even before that magical moment.
A teenage Kanu had helped the Golden Eaglets become world champions at the cadet World Cup in 1993. The youngster had also played a crucial role as Ajax lifted the UEFA Champions League in 1995.
In hindsight, it seemed quite destined that in a team that had the more experienced Uche Okechukwu and Emmanuel Amuneke, it was Kanu who skippered Nigeria to her most outstanding achievement in international football.
And the King was crowned African Footballer of the Year after that Olympic Games triumph.
Still, Kanu was not done, and despite having to overcome heart-related issues, the former Iwuanyanwu Nationale star went on to beat the odds and enjoy a hugely successful career.
By the time King Kanu said his goodbyes to football in 2012, his medals cabinet proudly displayed three Eredivisie titles, the UCL, the UEFA Cup, two Premier League titles, three FA Cups, and two African Player of the Year awards.
It’s no surprise that he is widely regarded as one of the greatest African footballers in history.
The Owerri-born legend turned 45 on August 1, and fans and friends took the opportunity to celebrate the man that helped fulfil Nigeria’s Olympic dreams.
Long live the King!