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Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Teams That Made Us Fall In Love With Football #2: Nigeria 1996

Magic Spongers' own Adam Bushby throws his hat in the ring for this, the second in our 10-part series on teams that made us fall in love with football. Rose-tinted glasses time... 

My love affair with Nigeria began in the summer of 1994. My love affair with Africa as a whole had begun four years earlier in Italy, but those memories are hazy and clouded by vague recollections of tears and mimed ‘keep an eye on him’s. It was Gary Lineker’s accuracy from the penalty spot that prematurely ended my fling with Cameroon in Naples in 1990. And then history repeated itself as the similar rapier-like precision of a man nicknamed Il Divin Codino did for my affair with Nigeria in Boston. The Divine Ponytail, from the penalty spot at the Foxboro Stadium. Roberto Baggio stole Nigeria from me in 1994. I was ten years old.

I didn’t appreciate this at the time but up until Italia ’90, it had been easy to dismiss an entire continent’s football output with a sneer and a wave of the hand and a snide reference to Ilunga Mwepu’s infamous caution at the World Cup of 1974 for running from the defensive wall and hoofing the ball away before a Brazilian free kick could be taken (for your consideration: the Zaire national side had been warned by despotic leader Mobutu Sese Seko that should they lose by four or more goals against the holders, they wouldn’t see out the week), as if this moment of confusion and comedy was all Africa could ever hope to offer.

But what I’d seen of Cameroon in 1990 and Nigeria in 1994 had whetted my appetite for the potential for an upset. Both were taken to extra time in their respective campaigns; close, but not close enough. Football at the start of the 90s for me was peppered with disappointment. Liverpool losing 2-0 in Genoa in the quarter final first leg of the Uefa Cup and then again, 2-1 at Anfield a fortnight later, in the spring of 1992. My first ever visit to Bootham Crescent being the eyeball-searingly bad 0-0 draw between York and Northampton, a year later. I also remember asking my dad to bring me a Barcelona shirt back from his holiday in Cyprus in 1995 – the Kappa one sported by Hristo Stoichkov and Romario, two of my favourite players – only for him to inexplicably bring back an Apoel Nicosia shirt – which I would kill for these days, ironically.

In the days before Sky and over-saturation, and with the Premier League in its infancy, it’s easy to forget just how exciting it all was for a boy. When a World Cup or a Euros or a European Cup came around, you watched players that you had read about in Shoot or Match but seldom ever seen, Football Italia aside. I remember being genuinely transfixed by Romario and Maradona in USA ’94; being blown away by the swagger of Gheorghe Hagi and Fernando Redondo; being mesmerised by Stoichkov’s brooding brilliance. I’d never seen players like this before. I’d seen Torben Piechnik and Brian Deane but nothing like this.

Crucially, by the time 1996 rolled round, I’d seen the underdog – an underdog I felt invested in – win once at this point. I was 12 years old and every time I’d rooted for David I’d seen him dispatched with ease by Goliath. Save for one balmy September night at Old Trafford in 1995 when I saw York City beat Manchester United 3-0 and reinforce my belief that sometimes dreams do come true.

My beloved Nigeria were back in the States for the Atlanta Olympics in ‘96 and entered as dark horses at best. Brazil and Argentina had both named formidable squads. For the former, Aldair, Roberto Carlos, Bebeto, Ronaldo, Juninho, Flavio Conceicao, Rivaldo and Savio featured. For the Argentines, Roberto Ayala, Roberto Sensini, Matias Almeyda, Jose Chamot, Diego Simeone, Hernan Crespo, Claudio Lopez, Javier Zanetti and Ariel Ortega were included. But I didn’t care. Nigeria were my side. And they had a squad brimming with talent. Jay Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, Taribo West, Tijani Babangida, Daniel Amokachi, Celestine Babayaro and Emmanuel Amuneke the pick of the litter.

Okocha was and still is one of my favourite ever players. I’d seen somewhere, presumably on some VHS compilation, this skinny Nigerian lad single-handedly destroy a defence in the Bundesliga. For those who have never seen Okocha bamboozling the Karlsruhe defence in 1993, this is an absolute joy, especially given he completely takes the piss out of Oliver Khan. For me, this was what football was about. Replicating what you’d do on the school playground in proper games. And that’s how Nigeria played their football that fateful summer in ’96.

I don’t remember much from the group stages if I’m being honest; not like I remember Euro ’96 but that’s for another day. A 1-0 against Hungary, and a 2-0 win over Japan sent Nigeria through to the knockouts, and a Ronaldo strike gave Brazil a 1-0 victory and first place in the group. The Super Eagles were in the quarter finals and I was beginning to get excited. A 2-0 win over Mexico saw Okocha score his second of the tournament and a 17-year-old Celestine Babayaro net the other. My boys had set up a semi-final meeting with Brazil and I was both elated and petrified. ‘There’s no shame in going out to the reigning world champions,’ I told myself, but deep down I feared a shellacking.

The Brazil match, I remember vividly, despite the fact that almost 15 years have passed. Funnily enough, the colour of the shirts is still very clear in my mind. The brightness of the Brazil yellow and the Nigeria green in the Georgian sunshine. Like footballing Opal Fruits (I will never subscribe to this Starburst nonsense). For months I desperately tried to buy that Nigeria shirt to no avail. My best mate Alex Douglas and I did end up getting our hands on the fluorescent Nigeria shirt of France ’98 sparking a bizarre trend at our school which saw about 7 or 8 pasty white Yorkshire lads in the gaudy green of the Super Eagles that summer.

It’s fair to point out that I didn’t really give a shit about tactics at this juncture in my life. On the playground, I was used to being deployed in a trequartista role in a 1-1-14 formation. What does still stick in my mind so firmly is the utter freedom of the Nigerians. Free-flowing expansive football, short passing juxtaposed with lung-busting bursts through midfield. There seemed to be acres of space all over the pitch for both sides. For a 12-year-old, this was akin to footballing Eurotrash. Soft-core porn for the romantics. With such a cavalier approach being adopted by both sides, 0-0 was an impossibility. I expected flamboyance but what followed was sheer unadulterated attacking bliss.

When Flavio Conceicao’s free kick put Brazil ahead in the first minute, all I could hope for was that Nigeria would avoid a thrashing. But then remarkably, they equalised. A lovely bit of skill from Babayaro saw him skin his marker and fire it across the six yard box only for Roberto Carlos to smash it into the roof of his own net. The goals kept flowing and I was utterly enthralled. Nigeria were 3-1 down by the 38th minute. Bebeto added the second and then a beautiful deft chest from Juninho to Flavio Conceicao saw the latter sweep it over the onrushing keeper.

I remember Victor Ikpeba’s goal to make it 2-3 being a real treat and researching this piece, YouTube confirmed it. Both sides are going hell for leather, the ball is won in the centre circle and Brazil’s defence is carved wide open far too easily. I’ve no idea where Brazil’s right back is but Ikpeba supplies a wonderfully accomplished finish from the angle of the penalty area to nestle the ball into the bottom corner.

The equaliser in the final minute was even better. Kanu has his back to goal two yards out when it bobbles through to him, he then cheekily chips it up and dinks it over the prostrate keeper. His ridiculous celebration after the goal – what can only be described as a John Inman ‘I’m free’ impression – made it all the more wonderful. Here I was watching Nigeria, my team, drawing with Brazil. His winner – a 94th minute golden goal – is even better. Fortuitous in that the ball canons of Amokachi’s back and into his path, Kanu finished with aplomb from the edge of the box. Nigeria had beaten Brazil 4-3. With a 94th minute golden goal. For a 12-year-old this was like overdosing on E numbers at Disneyland. All I remember is not being able to sleep that night and then trying out ‘Kanus’ at the local park the next day.

The final is a bit of a blur for whatever reason. I wasn’t the fickle pessimist I am prone to be these days and fully expected Nigeria to beat Argentina. And beat them they did. Another attacking-football fiesta ended with the Super Eagles 3-2 winners and Olympic champions. Three things stick out from the game. The scary bald ref, I’d later find out was, of course, Pierluigi Collina. Ortega’s dive to earn a penalty – I never liked him after that. And the winner, still one of my favourite ever goals. It was 2-2 in the 90th minute and with the game heading to extra time, Nigeria got a free kick on the left hand side of the penalty area. Just a fraction of a second after the free kick is floated in, the Argentina defence moves out, arms aloft in unison. But they’ve cocked it up. They’ve sprung the offside trap a fraction too late. Emmanuel Amuneke looks for all the world like he’s about four yards off. But he’s not. It’s beautiful. Completely unmarked, he volleys it left footed past Cavallero. The Nigerian players go apeshit. The Nigerian bench goes apeshit. And a scrawny little 12-year-old in York goes apeshit.

Football continues to retain much of its sense of wonder for me for the simple reason that sometimes, fairy tales do happen.

1 comment:

  1. You are officially my favourite writer!

    As a young English born Nigerian kid the 96 Olympics has been the highlight of my time watching Nigeria.

    We have massively underachieved especially in our present incarnation but the 96 games were wonderful, I remember watching the final with my uncle who has the same name and my brother.

    I was 8, thus I remember very little but this has reignited what little I remember and I thank you for this!