Classic finals: Double Nigerian comeback makes history

Nwanko Kanu of Nigeria during the final of Atlanta 1996 against Argentina on 3 August 1996.
Nwanko Kanu of Nigeria during the final of Atlanta 1996 against Argentina on 3 August 1996.

The history of the Olympic Games is full of dramatic, emotional and beautiful moments that took place in finals. Every week, relive the most incredible finals you can remember on video. This week, we look at the 1996 men’s football final.

The deets

  • Men's football final, Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games
  • Argentina vs Nigeria
  • Sanford Stadium, Athens, Georgia, USA, 3 August 1996
Men’s Football Final, Atlanta 1996

Mighty football nation Argentina in an Olympic final against Nigeria hoping to become the first major football champion from Africa.

The background

The first stages of the Olympic men’s football competition proved to be very different for each team. In the first round, Argentina played within themselves, but finished top of their group ahead of Portugal. However, they showed their muscle in the quarter-finals by beating Spain - the title holders - 4-0 with a brace from Hernan Crespo. They then disposed of Portugal 2-0 in the semis after another Crespo double.

In comparison, Nigeria finished second in their group, before going on to beat Mexico 2-0 in the quarter-finals. In the semi-final, they managed to achieve what would become a legendary comeback against Brazil. The all-star Brazilian team (which included Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Bebeto and Rivaldo) were leading 3-1 at the 78th minute, when Nigeria pulled one back with a goal from Viktor Ikpeba (78’). The Nigerian team then equalised in the very last minute thanks to a goal from legendary striker Nwankwo Kanu (90’), who would also score the winning golden goal four minutes into extra time.

The key moment

When the final began, very few would have viewed Nigeria as favourites. And even less so when Claudio ‘El Piojo’ Lopez opened the scoring for the Albiceleste only three minutes after kick-off. Yet, the Olympic Eagles did not give up and equalised with a header from Celestine Babayaro - the youngest player on the pitch.

And then something incredible happened. Something you would imagine could not occur twice in the same tournament. Pierluigi Collina gave a penalty to Argentina, which Crespo swiftly dispatched for his sixth goal of the competition (50’). At that moment, everyone thought the Nigerian fairytale was over.

Everybody, that is, except the Nigerian team.

First Daniel Amokachi equalised in the 74th minute to bring the scores level. And then the key moment came: In the very last minute, Nigeria won a free-kick and Argentina tried to play the offside trap. But Roberto Sensini was late coming out, leaving Emmanuel Amunike alone in the box. The Nigerian striker did not miss the target.

By the time Colina blew the final whistle the 86,000-strong crowd was ecstatic. For the first time ever, an African team had won the Olympic football tournament.

The outcome

"I guarantee you that as I talk to you now, everyone in Africa is celebrating. There is no sleeping tonight. Everyone will be happy. This is for all the African countries.”

Those are the words of Nigerian midfielder Sunday Oliseh following the victory. If it was a first for an African nation, it was also hugely disappointing for the Argentine side, as the Olympic Games was the only tournament they had never won.

Both teams had impressive squads: Ariel Ortega, Crespo, Lopez, Javier Zanetti, Marcelo Gallardo, Diego Simeone (Argentina), Kanu, Amunike, Amokashi, Jay-Jay Okocha, Ikpeba, Tijani Babangida (Nigeria) to name but a few, and both teams were expected to shine two years later at the World Cup in France. However, when that tournament came around, each team played brilliantly in the first round but disappointed in the knockout stage, with the Nigerians losing to Denmark in the last 16 and Argentina losing to the Netherlands in the quarter-finals.