96ers await Beijing replay
© AFP

Saturday's final will pit Argentina against Nigeria in a replay of the classic gold-medal match from Atlanta 1996, where a West African ‘Dream Team' that included Nwankwo Kanu and ‘Jay Jay' Okocha did away with an Albiceleste boasting such illustrious names as Ariel Ortega, Hernan Crespo and Roberto Ayala.

The Argentines were heavy favourites on that day in steamy Georgia, but the green-clad Africans left the ground with gold dangling from their necks after a last-gasp 3-2 win. Now, on the eve of a Beijing re-play at the Bird's Nest, two crucial players - Nigeria's Emmanuel Amunike and Argentina's Nestor Sensini - take FIFA.com back to that fateful day in 1996 and look forward to Saturday's final.

"It was a once-in-lifetime experience for us, and a huge moment for African football," Amunike, who went on to play for Barcelona, told FIFA.com the day before a re-match that will pit the likes of Victor Obinna and Solomon Okoronkwo against Lionel Messi and Juan Roman Riquelme. "I remember the other athletes looking at us like ‘what the hell are they doing here?' while we would sing and dance and party in the Olympic Village - we had some strong characters but we also had a lot of love and respect in the team."

The final, played before more than 86,000 fans at the Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia, was a see-saw battle. Argentina took the lead after only three minutes through Claudio Lopez, before Celestine Babayaro equalised on 28 minutes. Hernan Crespo restored the Argentina lead in the 50th minute, but Daniel Amokachi drew the Africans level again in the 74th, before Nestor Sensini played Amunike onside for a Nigerian winner three minutes into stoppage time.

"I can tell you that, at that precise moment, that goal was the happiest moment of my career," said Amunike, who also played in the semi-final against Brazil where Nigeria fought back from a 3-1 halftime deficit to win 4-3. "Everyone thought we were heading for extra-time, but it all ended with that goal. It was a feeling of pure joy. The celebrations that followed were almost as big as the goal itself."

As the Nigerians celebrated a first-ever world title for the African continent, paving the way for Cameroon's gold four years later, the heavily fancied Argentines were mired in self-doubt.

Sensini nightmare
The disappointment of Sensini - the man responsible for the goal - couldn't be more of a contrast to the joy of Amunike. "It's a bitter memory," he said. "Sure, it's a great achievement to win silver, but we had played very well through the tournament and deserved better.

"I don't think we deserved to lose," the current Estudiantes de la Plata boss added. "But that Nigerian team was a great side, and you can't take anything away from them."

With memories still fresh of that fateful day 12 years ago in the USA, both key men are expecting a similar cracker in Beijing on Saturday. "There's no comparing our team (1996) to Samson Siasia's current one, but they are extremely talented," Amunike said. "To win the Olympics is an amazing, life-changing event and I hope the result on Saturday is the same as in 96!"

Sensini, predictably, is hoping for something a little different. "I feel like this Argentina team is in a class by itself, without rival," he concluded. "If you look at the game against Brazil, you can see just how loaded they are, and if they don't get too overconfident they should win the gold."