The Nigerian Under-23 male Soccer team, nicknamed the Dream Team, that represented Nigeria at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America, will always be remembered for their unprecedented remarkable achievement of winning gold at the summer games. The team distinguished itself and made history by becoming the first African and non-European and South American team to win an Olympic gold medal in Soccer.
Soccer as a Sport in Nigeria
Soccer (often referred to as Football in Nigeria) is the most popular sport in Nigeria. It is played on tarred streets, dusty or grass fields, at amateur, semi-professional and professional levels. Over the years, Nigeria has produced notable soccer talents who have worn the country’s jerseys and played in many international competitions. The Nigerian Football Association (NFA) is the governing body for soccer in Nigeria and the association oversees different national teams at different age levels. The senior male national team is called the Super Eagles, while the senior female national team is referred to as the Super Falcons. The Under-20 team is called the Flying Eagles and the Under-17 team is nicknamed the Golden Eaglets. Starting at the 1996 summer Olympics, every male Under-23 team that has represented Nigeria for the Olympic soccer games has been tagged as a Dream Team. Nigeria’s first participation in the Olympics games dates back to 1952 and athletes have competed for medals in every summer Olympics since then except for the 1976 games which was boycotted because of apartheid. In all of Nigeria’s history at the summer games, the victory of the men’s Under-23 football team is arguably the most remarkable till date. The team set out to Atlanta with lots of potential and support from home.
Preparation for the 1996 Olympics
The Under-23 team was led by Dutchman Johannes Bonfrere and assisted by Nigeria’s Musa Abdulahi. Both coaches assembled a team of talented players who plied their trades in different clubs across Europe and other parts of the world. As the rules of FIFA and International Olympic Committee apply, a maximum of three overaged players (players above the age of 23) are allowed for the tournament. Jo Bonfrere included two overaged players from the Super Eagles to provide depth and experience in the Dream Team. The lineup of players that represented Nigeria at Atlanta 1996 is shown below:
|No.||Pos.||Player||Date of Birth (Age)||Club (Country)|
|1||GK||Emmanuel Babayaro||26 December 1976 (19)||Plateau United (Nigeria)|
|18||GK||Dosu Joseph||19 June 1977 (19)||Julius Berger (Nigeria)|
|2||DF||Celestine Babayaro||29 August 1978 (17)||Anderlecht (Belgium)|
|3||DF||Taribo West||26 March 1974 (22)||Auxerre (France)|
|5||DF||Uche Okechukwu*||27 September 1967 (28)||Fenerbahçe (Turkey)|
|12||DF||Abiodun Obafemi||25 December 1973 (22)||Toulouse (France)|
|16||DF||Kingsley Obiekwu||12 November 1974 (21)||Go Ahead Eagles (Netherlands)|
|17||DF||Mobi Oparaku||1 December 1976 (19)||Anderlecht (Belgium)|
|6||MF||Emmanuel Amuneke*||25 December 1970 (25)||Sporting CP (Portugal)|
|7||MF||Tijani Babangida||25 December 1973 (22)||Roda (Netherlands)|
|8||MF||Wilson Oruma||30 December 1976 (19)||Lens (France)|
|9||MF||Teslim Fatusi||17 September 1977 (18)||Ferencváros (Hungary)|
|10||MF||Jay-Jay Okocha||14 August 1973 (22)||Eintracht Frankfurt (Germany)|
|15||MF||Sunday Oliseh||14 September 1974 (21)||Köln (Germany)|
|4||FW||Nwankwo Kanu||1 August 1976 (19)||Ajax (Netherlands)|
|11||FW||Victor Ikpeba||12 June 1973 (23)||AS Monaco (France)|
|13||FW||Garba Lawal||22 May 1974 (22)||Espérance (Tunisia)|
|14||FW||Daniel Amokachi||30 December 1972 (23)||Everton (England)|
The team assembled by the coaching crew was a perfect mix of speed, technicality, youthful exuberance and passion. Their performance at the games was exhilarating and entertaining. The team arrived in Tallahassee, Florida well in time ahead of other teams to commence training for the tournament in Atlanta. Their arrival and training schedule was kept away from the media and no one practically considered the team as one of favorites to perform well at the games.
Matches and Performances
Nigeria was grouped alongside Brazil, Hungary and Japan during the first round of the men’s football event. The Dream Team kicked off with a 1-0 victory over Hungary, with Nwankwo Kanu scoring the winning goal in the 44th minute. Nigeria secured a second victory in the next game with a 2-0 win over Japan, courtesy of goals by Tijani Babangida and Jay-Jay Okocha in the 82nd and 90th minute respectively. Nigeria’s third and final game of the first round saw the Dream Team playing against tournament favorites Brazil. Nigeria suffered a 0-1 loss to the Brazilians. However, points accrued from two victories were sufficient enough to advance to the quarter-finals where Nigeria faced Mexico. The Dream Team put in a spirited performance by scoring a two goal shut-out of El-Tri. Jay-Jay Okocha grabbed his second goal of the tournament when he found the back of the net in the 20th minute, while Celestine Babayaro confirmed the victory when he scored Nigeria’s second of the game in the 82nd minute.
Nigeria’s victory over Mexico in the quarter-finals set up an interesting matchup in the semifinals, with Nigeria having to face Brazil again. The Brazilian team were still favorites with world class players such as Ronaldo, Bebeto and Rivaldo. The semifinal game started with Brazil on the front foot. Flavio put the South Americans ahead in the 1st minute of the game but Nigeria survived the early intense pressure mounted by the Brazilians, leveling the score in the 20th minute courtesy of a Roberto Carlos own goal. After the equalizer, the South Americans turned on the heat restoring and extending their lead with two goals scored in the 28th and 38th minute. Facing imminent defeat, Nigeria finally stepped up their game in the final quarter of the game. Victor Ikpeba struck in the 78th minute with a 20 yard screamer. With few minutes of added time left, Nwankwo Kanu in a flash of brilliance and technique equalized, skillfully turning in a goal-mouth scramble from less than 2 yards out. This took the game into extra time.
At the time, FIFA rules regarding Olympic soccer games that go into extra time dictated that the first team to score a “golden goal”, a goal scored in extra time, will be declared the victor. Barely four minutes into extra time, Nwankwo Kanu was the hero once again when he grabbed his second of the game and game-winner from 16 yards out. The spectators at the stadium went into a frenzy. A remarkable comeback had been achieved by an underdog against the tournament favorites. In fact, till today, many consider this game the greatest Olympic football game ever played. Nigeria was set to play Argentina in the gold-medal match.
The gold-medal match was played on August 3rd, 1996 at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia in front of 86,117 spectators. The game was officiated by the legendary Italian referee Pierluigi Collina. Claudio Lopez put the Argentines ahead in the 3rd minute but Nigeria leveled through Celestine Babayaro in the 28th minute. In the 50th minute, Hernan Crespo restored Argentina’s lead with a well taken penalty. And in similar fashion to the semifinal game against Brazil, Nigeria again staged another comeback. Daniel Amokachi equalized for Nigeria again in the 74th minute. With a minute left in regulation time, Emmanuel Amunike scored the winning goal when he intelligently beat Argentina’s offside trap and beat goalkeeper Pablo Cavallero from close range. The game ended in a 3-2 triumph for Nigeria. The unprecedented had been achieved. Nigeria’s Dream Team won gold in men’s football at the Olympics becoming the first African team to ever do so.
The victory was widely celebrated not only in Nigeria, but across the continent of Africa. Also, the dream team won the hearts of neutrals at the games with their spirited display, entertaining playing style and remarkable patriotism.
The victory of the Dream Team in 1996 brought succor to Nigerians in a politically tumultuous time. Under the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha, the Nigerian national football team, had been forced to withdraw from participating in the African Cup of Nations held in South Africa earlier that year due to international criticism of the military government’s role in the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and seven other Niger Delta activists. At the international level, the triumph of the Dream Team remains Nigeria’s most notable sporting victory and one that hasn’t been replicated ever since. The triumphant players were recognized by the Federal Government and each player received a luxury apartment and a plot of land in a new development located in developing parts of Lagos State. In addition, they also each received a cash reward of one million naira (about 12,500 USD at the time) and national award of Member of the Order of the Niger (MON).
A couple of members of that team went on to build successful football careers that put Nigeria on the world map. Kanu Nwankwo went on to play for major European clubs, achieving successes at Ajax and Arsenal FC. He was named African Footballer of the Year in 1996 and 1999 and is regarded as one of the most decorated African players of all time. Jay-Jay Okocha continued to dazzle the world with his mesmerizing skills after the 1996 Olympics, winning the BBC African Footballer of the Year Award in 2003 and 2004.
The memory of Atlanta ’96 still fuels hope for Nigeria’s Olympic fans. Even after two decades, the Nigeria’s last two victories against Brazil and Argentina remain fresh in the minds of many Nigerians. It truly gave the world a glimpse of what Africa can achieve on the world stage. This belief was strengthened when Cameroon went on to win the next gold in men’s football at the Sydney Olympics, four years after the magic of the Dream Team in Atlanta.
- “Nigeria at the 1996 Summer Olympics”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 29 August. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigeria_at_the_1996_Summer_Olympics>.
- “Football at the 1996 Summer Olympics – Men’s team squads”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 23 August. 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Football_at_the_1996_Summer_Olympics_%E2%80%93_Men%27s_team_squads#.C2.A0Nigeria>.
- Sunday Oliseh. “The Inside Story of Nigeria’s Atlanta ‘96 Gold Medal”. SuperSport. MultiChoice (Pty) Ltd. Web. 25 July. 2012. <http://www.supersport.com/football/blogs/sunday-oliseh/The_inside_story_of_Nigerias_Atlanta_96_gold_medal>.
- “Olympics Football Tournaments Atlanta 1996 – Men”. FIFA.com. FIFA. Web. 2015. <http://www.fifa.com/tournaments/archive/mensolympic/atlanta1996/index.html>.
- Eromo Egbejule. “’We ran out of beer’: The Night Nigeria Won Olympic Gold against Argentina”. Special Editorial. The Guardian (US Edition). 04 August. 2016. Print. Online version. < https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/04/olympics-football-1996-nigeria-argentina-rio>.