When Nigeria's Super Eagles stunned the world

Jay-Jay Okocha of Nigeria runs at the Argentina defence during the final of the Olympic men's football competition. (Photo by Henri Szwarc/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Jay-Jay Okocha of Nigeria runs at the Argentina defence during the final of the Olympic men's football competition. (Photo by Henri Szwarc/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Over the history of the Olympic Games a number of teams have reached such heights that they can only be described as incredible. Tokyo 2020 revisits the stories of these unforgettable teams and the star players that helped them light up the Olympic Games. In the latest part of our series, we look at the Nigeria men’s football team who took the world by storm at the 1996 Olympics.

How it started

Nowadays, the names of many of the Nigerian football team that lit up the 1996 Olympic Games are known across the globe: the mercurial talent of Jay-Jay Okocha - so good they named him twice; the languid genius of 1.97m Nwankwo Kanu; the backflip celebrations of Celestine Babayaro - the list goes on.

But before that historic performance in Atlanta, the world was largely unaware of the burgeoning talents of the young Super Eagles.

That doesn’t, however, mean the squad hadn’t already signalled their potential to the world. Keen followers of football would have been aware of the impressive performances of a country whose senior national team had won the 1994 African Cup of Nations, before succumbing 2-1 to eventual runners up Italy in the last 16 of the 1994 World Cup.

And the truly eagle-eyed football fans would have also made note of the fact that, with the Olympics being essentially an U23’s tournament, the members of the Nigerian team who had won the 1993 U17 World Cup in Japan would be coming of age at just the right time.

Even so, this was the Olympics, and the usual suspects would be ready to compete, including the South American giants Argentina and Brazil.

Argentina’s squad for that year’s Games included future legends Hernan Crespo, Javier Zanetti and Matías Almeyda.

Brazil, for their part, could count on an all-star cast that included Roberto Carlos, Rivaldo and a certain 19-year-old forward who would go on to win the FIFA World Player of the Year award on three separate occasions - Ronaldo.

How would the young Nigerians stack up against the traditional powerhouses of world football?

Nwanko Kanu of Nigeria runs past Javier Zanetti of Argentina during the men's Olympic football final at Atlanta 1996. (Photo by Henri Szwarc/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Nwanko Kanu of Nigeria runs past Javier Zanetti of Argentina during the men's Olympic football final at Atlanta 1996. (Photo by Henri Szwarc/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Bongarts

The biggest win

Undoubtedly the biggest win for Nigeria was the final of the Atlanta 1996 Olympic football competition.

But even before reaching the final they had to see off the challenge of arguably one of the greatest Olympic football teams ever selected.

The semi-final against Brazil saw them overcome the shock of conceding a first-minute goal to run out 4-3 winners. Kanu struck home a memorable 90th minute equaliser to take the game into extra time before his golden goal killed the game and sealed an unforgettable victory for Nigeria.

It was the end of the road for Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Bebeto and Roberto Carlos, as Nigeria marched on into the final.

On 3 August, 86,117 spectators filled the Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia to watch Argentina take on Nigeria in the Olympic gold medal match.

Argentina took control of the tie, going ahead 2-1 with goals from Claudio Lopez and Hernan Crespo. But the Super Eagles were not to be denied.

In another incredible comeback, the Nigerian team first equalised with a 74th minute through a Daniel Amokachi strike before Emmanuel Amunike beat the offside trap to score a point-blank winner in the last minute of the game.

Nigeria had become the first-ever African nation to win an Olympic football gold medal. And they had done it in style.

The Nigerian men's football team celebrate winning the gold medal match at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. (Photo by Ruediger Fessel/Bongarts/Getty Images)
The Nigerian men's football team celebrate winning the gold medal match at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. (Photo by Ruediger Fessel/Bongarts/Getty Images)
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The key players

The 'Dream Team', as the Nigerian squad were nicknamed after their Atlanta triumph, relied on many stars in 1996. But perhaps the greatest of these were the attacking duo of Okocha and captain Kanu.

Okocha, for his part, won the Nigerian Footballer of the Year award a total of seven times between 1995 and 2005, and his impressive skill-set - he even had his own trick, 'the Okocha flick' named after him - has seen him gain legendary status both in Nigeria and across the world.

It says something, though, that the Nigerian Footballer of the Year for 1996 was the tall, languid attacker Kanu, who has since gone on to be considered one of the greatest players in African history. Kanu went on to win the UEFA Champions League and two African Player of the Year awards in a trophy-laden career.

But it would be impossible to talk about the gold medal-winning Super Eagles without giving a special mention to Emmanuel Amunike - the player whose last-minute heroics sealed victory for Nigeria in the most important match in their history.

Men’s Football Final, Atlanta 1996
51:59

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

What happened next?

Four years later at the Sydney 2000 Games, Nigeria once again navigated their way through the group stage before being beaten 4-1 by Chile in the quarter-finals. But if Nigeria had been the first African nation to win Olympic gold, Sydney 2000 proved they would not be the last.

The gold medal winners in Australia were Cameroon, who triumphed 5-3 on penalties against Spain after initially playing out a 2-2 draw. Since then Latin American teams have dominated the competition, with wins for Argentina (Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008), Mexico (London 2012) and Brazil (Rio 2016).

But not many of these teams have captured the imagination of the public in the way Nigeria's Super Eagles did when they stunned the world at Atlanta 1996.