Former U-23 Eagles captain, Nwankwo Kanu and striker, Emmanuel Amuneke, have tipped the current squad to repeat the 1996 feat when Nigeria lifted the trophy in Atlanta, USA.
Nigeria wowed the world by winning Africa’s first ever gold in the football category at the Olympic Games in Atlanta (1996), and their performance has repeatedly brought back feelings of nostalgia even as the 2016 edition gets underway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Tagged ‘Dream Team’, the U-23 Eagles with six players from the Super Eagles squad that won the Africa Cup of Nations two years earlier in Tunisia progressed from their preliminary Group D section losing only 1-0 to Brazil after wins over Hungary (1-0) and Japan (2-0).
Against Mexico at the quarter-finals, they came off with a 2-0 win to set the stage yet again for a ‘mother of all battles’ against Brazil in the semi-final which ended in dramatic fashion. By the 78th minute, Mario Zagallo’s peerless Brazil complete with the likes of Ronaldo and Bebeto were leading Nigeria 3-1 and everyone thought it was all over.
But ‘it’s not over until it is over’ as Victor Ikpeba soon struck a lively shot past goalkeeper Dida to reduce the tally to 3-2 and almost in regulation time, Nwankwo Kanu popped the ball up to knee level before drilling it between defenders Aldair and Ronaldo Guira for the equalizer. In the fourth minute of extra time, Kanu again struck the ‘golden goal’ to set a date with Argentina in the final.
“We had a lot of characters and quality players in the team which really helped us a great deal in Atlanta,” Kanu, captain, who was later bestowed with the honour of 1996 African Footballer of the Year, told CAFOnline.com.
“Winning the football gold Medal and being the first team to do that from Africa in Atlanta was special but I think it was more than that. The pressure was really on us when we got to the semi-finals to meet Brazil again because they had beaten us (1-0) at the Group stage. We wanted to give everything but nobody believed we could turn things around after we went down 3-1 towards the end of the match.
“Beating Brazil was very important and it was like we had already won the trophy though we were yet to play the final against Argentina. Winning the Gold Medal brought peace to our country because there were many problems on ground at that period (following the annulment of the June 12, 1993 Presidential elections). After we won, nobody was talking about politics but football,” Kanu observed.
Reflecting on Nigeria’s historic win in Atlanta, Emmanuel Amuneke who scored the winner in the final against Argentina, which ended 3-2 in favour of the West Africans described the occasion as momentous.
“We had high hopes going to the Olympics because we had a very great team at the time. Players with experience of winning the African Cup of Nations (in Tunisia 1994) and those who were also at the World Cup in the United States,” revealed Amuneke, 1994 African Footballer of the Year and now coach, guiding Nigeria to win a record fifth FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile last year.
“I was not at my best as I was injured in the match against Japan and I started from the bench against Argentina; but God favoured me to score the winning the goal in the final match in Atlanta. That is an unforgettable moment for me and Nigerians”, Amuneke said.
“We are still very much in contact with each other after playing together in Atlanta,” said Amuneke, now a UEFA Pro-Licence holder.
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