Today July 31, 2020 makes it 24 years since the Nigerian U-23 men football team defeated Brazil at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics.
Nigeria came to the tournament as a dark horse. They suffered their only defeat in tournament at the group stage with a 1-0 loss to Brazil.
However, that loss did not affect Nigeria’s qualification from the group, they finished runners-up behind Brazil with both teams tied on six points.
In the quarter-finals Nigeria sent Mexico packing from the tournament with a 2-0 win. With goals coming from Jay-Jay Okocha and Celestine Babayaro sending them through to the semifinal. On the other hand, Brazil sent Ghana packing from the tournament with a 4-2 victory.
However, destiny brought Nigeria and Brazil back together in the semifinal. They met in a match that could be best described as one of the greatest upset in the Olympics football history.
Their second meeting was an opportunity for Brazil to perfect their superiority over Nigeria. It also afforded Nigeria an opportunity to get her pound of flesh after their first loss to Brazil.
Brazil opened scoring in the first one minute with a goal from Flavio Conceicao. Nigeria responded in the 20th minutes with an own-goal coming from Roberto Carlos through Celestine Babayaro cross.
Bebeto scored the second for Brazil in 28’ minutes, before Conceicao added his second in the 38’ minutes. The scoreline at 3-1 suggested that it was end of the road for Nigeria.
Despite the lead, Nigeria exhibited confidence and maturity in their play, not minding the big names paraded by Brazil.
Nigeria’s hope of reducing the score line in the second half through a penalty kick when Daniel Amokachi was brought down in the 18-yard-box proved abortive. Jay-Jay Okocha who took the spot kick played it in the direction of goalkeeper Dida and that made most Nigerians believe that progress was impossible.
The players were not in any manner discouraged; they still played with determination and confidence. Rolling the ball around against a Brazilian side that assumed they had won the match.
Back home in Nigeria, the atmosphere was unfriendly and gloomy moments surfaced in most homes. For a match that was played in the early hours of the day, considering the time zone. It was painful that a lot of Nigerians were awake and witnessing such loss.
There were several reported cases of Nigerians switching off their television sets. Ours was not left out; as my angry dad practically switched off the television before going to bed, issuing a standing order that everyone should go to bed. But my mum summoned the courage to on the television back after I made an appeal that it was important we saw the end of this match.
Back in the game the team kept on with their efforts to salvage a goal. Their efforts paid-off in the 78’ minutes when Victor Ikpeba’s strike outside the 18-yard-box got Nigeria a second goal.
That goal rekindled the hopes of many. And I remember vividly then that my dad who had gone to bed woke up to rejoin in the match upon hearing the shout of goal.
Persistence from the team further continued. And Jay Jay Okocha’s throw in the 90’ minutes deep into the Brazilian 18-yard-box turned things around.
Teslim Fatusi missed an opportunity to score from Jay Jay Okocha’s throw. But the ball rolled over to Kanu Nwankwo who was already backing goalkeeper Dida and lifted the ball up before turning to score the goal that sent the match into extra time.
That goal did not just send the team into extra time, it also gave the team and Nigerian fans the confidence needed to watch the match to end.
The Nigeria Football Supporters Club (NFSC) who sang all along even in time of defeat increased their tempo in a crescendo-like manner.
There was high hope that victory was sure in extra time. Kanu Nwankwo who took the game into extra time did not fail to complete the task he started. He struck again in extra time to sink the almighty Brazil.It was his golden goal that sent Nigeria into the final.
It was a memorable day for Nigeria, a day never to be forgotten in Nigeria football history. In fact, winning that match was enough boost that gave the team the confidence that made the team beat Argentina in the final to win Africa’s first ever Olympic gold in football. A memory which will be too difficult to forget.