By Preye Campbell
Of course, we have heard the story a million times already. Of course, we have been fortified with a melange of emotions to tell the beautiful tale of Atlanta ’96. For someone like me who wasn’t even born when history was made, I have been baptized with a lot of articles, series of low visual quality YouTube videos and more than a good dose of my uncle’s account of the day a nation, thrown in the mix of utter confusion and military junta, changed the script to win gold at the Olympics. Consider this article as one more narrative to take you back to twenty-four years ago to Atlanta, at a sellout crowd of 86,117 at the Sanford stadium; the home of our success.
The Dream Team as they were fondly called, found themselves on the cusp of history on that Saturday afternoon. What they had achieved prior to that was so much more than a fairytale and Nigerians back at home and in other parts of the world could already agree that this team painted success on the canvass of the world stage. It was a fairytale for certain obvious reasons at the time; politically, the nation was in a midst of turmoil and unrest. The then military administration created a repressive nation where freedom of speech was assured but freedom after speech? Well.
And that was the catalyst on missing out of the African Cup of Nations in South Africa in 1995. Nigeria sparked international outrage after the hanging of human rights activist, Ken-Saro Wiwa. It was reason enough for the South African government to condemn the Nigerian governmnet and, with the AFCON tournament near, Nigeria was forced to withdraw from the competition thanks but no thanks to the dictatorial administration in place.
You should know that at the time, Nigeria were defending champions of the competition, representing a major blow to whatever plans the team must have had. We would go on to get banned from the competition for a while by CAF but that’s not the gist of the story.
Wages were left unpaid, preparations at an all time low despite qualifying for Atlanta ’96. Even the manager at the time, Jo Bronfere, had to resign from his duty post. With the pleas from the players, he later returned to take charge and steer the course for an eventful summer Olympics.
But was the team ready for the Olympics? A 5-1 hammering from Togo in a friendly confirmed the answer; No, they weren’t. It will take a lot to whip an unsettled team to shape for a major tournament. A major lot.
Still, a nation in chaos arrived in Atlanta to take on the world. Fixed in a group with Hungary, Japan and the super talented Brazillian team, one could possibly wonder on the readiness of these 22 talented, albeit distracted players.
But the African team were not to be shaken.
Nobody thought the Nigerian team was going to win. Those were the words of the Washington Post reporter, Athelia Knight, who covered the final against Argentina. In retrospect, she was right.
Hungary came first. The Super Eagles played with flair but it was as if they were still trying to get settled in the competition. It took a lanky Nwankwo Kanu effort at half-time to separate the boys from the men.
Far from convincing, Japan came. Another game, another unconvincing win. Tijani Babangida’s arcing run from behind calmed nerves eight minutes from normal time before Austin Jay-Jay Okocha sealed an important win and progression to the knockout stages. Two games, six points, three goals. Good on paper but not quite there yet.
As if fit to script, the Samba boys from Brazil were also shaky in the group stages. They had lost the first game against Japan before thumping past Hungary – Bebeto and the ‘El Fenomeno’ Ronaldo at the heart of Brazil’s attack.
The match against Nigeria was simply important for the then current World Cup champions and Ronaldo ensured they qualify -and top the group standings- for the next round of the tournament.
So far, so good. A shaky start to the Olympics but progression to the knockout rounds. What could the Dream Team offer?
They gave us a hint against El Tri of Mexico. This time, a less nervy encounter saw the subliminal Austin Jay-Jay Okocha(so good, they named him twice) open the scoring with a missile effort from the middle of the park. Celestine Babayaro then pounced on a loose ball to send the Dream Team to the last four.
The Dream team. Fortuitously named after USA 1992 Basketball team. It was time to dream of what was supposedly the impossible. And a testament to that was another encounter with Brazil for a place in the final. Facing the likes of Bebeto, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Dunga again wasn’t the exact meaning for ‘dreaming’. The Brazilian attack was every team’s nightmare.
But by now, there was cohesion in the team, particularly in defence where the Gentle Giant Uche Okechukwu and the Barbed Wire Taribo West had formed a water tight partnership, one that saw only a goal conceded after four games.
Still, Brazil would start on the brighter note; Flavio Conceicao’s first minute free-kick unsettled a lot of nerves and the Brazillians took the game in their strides. Sunday Oliseh was suspended for that encounter so the midfield belonged to the Brazillians. There was a brief respite as Babayoro’s shot was deflected into the net by Roberto Carlos. It was still the Seleçao’s game. Bebeto tapped in and Conceicao got his second of that afternoon to rip the Dream Team to almost nothingness.
Jo Bonfrere looked at his bench and it was time for Victor Ikpeba to come on. Brazil, looking like the game was already won, reduced their tempo in the game. That would prove to be costly as the Dream Team found more space and control in the midfield and Ikpeba struck in the 78th minute to provide a glimmer of hope.
The glimmer of hope was all that was needed to bring back life and energy for the boys in Green and White. And, indeed, it was a tall 19-year-old from Ajax Amsterdam who had the final say. First, a scramble past Dida took the game to extra time. With a golden goal needed, Kanu seized the game and ended Brazil with an emphatic finish with his weaker foot. The boys in green were thrown into ecstasy and the Seleçao were thrown into total disbelief. There wasn’t so much time to reflect on the win because Argentina was around the corner, but the players should have known by then that something innate, something with the ability to finally dream had been born.
And there came Saturday. Sanford Stadium. 86,117 spectators. The Dream Team against La Albiceleste. The legendary likes of Ariel Ortega, Hernan Crespo, Claudio Lopez, Javier Zanetti waiting on the other side of the pitch. Waiting to see if they could change the narrative.
Claudio Lopez, in the third minute, gave a sign that there was nothing to dream of. The miniature magician, Babayaro, would not agree though, with a header of his own creating an edge-of-your-seat atmosphere.
Hernan Crespo doubled the Albiceleste’s lead after Ariel Ortega was fouled by Taribo West in the 16-yard box. Replays would show that there was a dive, but Italian referee Pierlugi Corlina had already given the decision and Argentina were cruising to a win.
Dream Team bounced back; the Bull Daniel Amokachi restored parity and with two minutes left on the clock,the fresh annointing of tension was poured on the thousands of Nigerians at home, who waited till midnight to watch the game.
Again, I wasn’t born at the time but given that I have watched a lot of finals, I could imagine the scene at home; bathed breath, edge of the seat, fist and teeth clenched, eyes on the TV.
So, when Wilson Oruma took the free-kick, when Emmanuel Amunike broke the offside trap to slam the ball past a helpless Pablo Cavallero, when the final whistle was blown, when the Dream Team jubilated like never before and when Nigerians took to the streets to celebrate wildly, everyone saw the narrative; a nation had dared to dream.
The team that had arrived in a state of chaos went home with gold.
At Atlanta ’96, the Dream Team would go on to become the first African nation to win gold; serving us an experience that we will savour for the rest of our lives.