Saturday 3 August 1996: a date that will forever go down as one of the greatest in Nigerian football history. 20 years ago today, the original Nigerian ‘Dream Team’ defeated Argentina 3-2 in the final of the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament, becoming the first African country to win gold at the competition.
Jo Bonfrere’s explosive side captured the imagination of supporters with their exciting brand of football, which saw them defeat heavyweights Mexico and Brazil in the knockout stages, before dispatching an Albiceleste side armed to the teeth with the likes of Ariel Ortega, Claudio Lopez and Hernan Crespo in the final.
Nigeria was equally awash with incredibly exciting talent, including Nwankwo Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha, Taribo West and Daniel Amokachi to name but a few. One of the most celebrated members of that side, it was the latter who netted the equaliser in the final before Emmanuel Amunike grabbed the dramatic 90th- minute winner.
20 years on, Amokachi beams when his mind is cast back to that tournament in Atlanta.
“It was the manner in which we won the competition that made us incredibly happy,” said Amokachi, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com. “We always seemed to come back from behind in games – and against top opposition. We played the giants of North and South America; Mexico in the quarter-final, Brazil in the semi-final and beat Argentina in the final.”
Amokachi, who netted 13 times in 44 appearances for his country, continued: “I had a wonderful tournament. My coach, Jo Bonfrere, said to me: ‘To really show your ability, you need to score. You’re doing everything right, you’re working hard for the team, creating chances for the team and if you can get a goal in the final, that would make you stand above the rest.’ I ended up scoring in the final which contributed in helping us win that gold medal.”
Flair, style and power; Nigeria’s heroic 1996 side boasted those qualities in abundance. But perhaps their most defining trait was their incredible sense of togetherness. The team’s strong bond was demonstrated when the squad rallied around coach Bonfrere when they thought the Dutchman was to be axed from his managerial position shortly before the tournament began.
“The character, maturity and mentality of us all is what made us into champions,” said the former Club Brugge, Everton and Besiktas star. “The love that we had for each other made it possible because we were one strong family. I remember when the (Nigerian) FA were unhappy with Jo Bonfrere and they decided to bring in another coach and lay him off just a couple of days before the Olympics.
“We were already in America and as a team we said: ‘If you’re sending him away, then you’ll need to find new players.’ That spirit alone showed and made us believe that we were all in this together and that it would make us into champions.”
Class of 2016
At Rio 2016, Nigeria open their Olympic campaign against Japan on 4 August, exactly 20 years and one day after the original Dream Team struck Olympic gold in Atlanta.
The current U-23 side, lead by manager Samson Siasia, booked their spot at Rio by storming to victory in the 2015 Africa U-23 Cup of Nations, where striker Oghenekaro Etebo finished as the competition’s top scorer, while midfielder Okechukwu Azubuike won best player of the tournament.
“Every generation has their moment,” maintained Amokachi. “The current team have a coach who is with them and they did well in qualification. They have to go there and be themselves, enjoy every second of the experience game by game, and we’ll see what happens.”
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