- Atlanta 1996 was the Centennial Olympics
- Argentina, Brazil, France, Italy and Spain sent star-stacked squads
- On this day in 1996 Nigeria emerged as the surprise champions
“Winning Olympic gold is the ultimate goal for any athlete,” said Kurt Angle. “So can you imagine how badly everyone wanted gold at the Centennial Olympics?”
The future WWE megastar overcame the tragic murder of his coach Dave Schultz in January 1996, not having a fixed training facility for a period, and fracturing two cervical vertebrae, herniating two discs, and pulling four muscles at the US Olympic trails to conquer heavyweight gold in freestyle wrestling and complete a career Grand Slam.
Andre Agassi, Michael Johnson, Wladimir Klitschko and Muhammad Ali also seized Olympic golds at Atlanta 1996 – the latter, who had lost the one he won as Cassius Clay at Rome 1960, was moved as he was presented with one during half-time of USA’s annihilation of Yugoslavia in the men’s basketball final.
Bookmakers had, pre-tournament, refused to take odds on Dream Team III conquering, but their was another would-be Dream Team who they were happily taking the occasional punt on.
Indeed, never had a Men’s Olympic Football Tournament been taken so seriously. Brazil, boasting Roberto Carlos, Juninho Paulista, Rivaldo, Bebeto and an at-the-peak-of-his-phenomenal-powers Ronaldo, were the favourites. Argentina, with Roberto Ayala, Javier Zanetti, Diego Simeone, Marcelo Gallardo, Ariel Ortega, Claudio Lopez and Hernan Crespo, were a close second.
Then came three very strong European sides. Italy’s squad featured Gigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, Damiano Tommasi and boy wonder Domenico Morfeo; France sent Claude Makelele, Vincent Candela, Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord; and Spain selected Gaizka Mendieta, Ivan de la Pena, Raul and Fernando Morientes.
Nigeria had dazzled at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, and while many felt that was a one-off, the Super Eagles themselves believe there was more – and better – to come.
“Going into the tournament we had the self-belief that if we applied ourselves well we could do something great for ourselves and the country," Emmanuel Amuneke told FIFA.com. "Don’t forget we had some players who featured for the senior national team at the 1994 World Cup.”
Nwankwo Kanu got the only goal against Hungary at the Citrus Bowl, before Jay-Jay Okocha sealed a 2-0 win over Japan that guaranteed Nigeria a Round-of-16 place. Their final group game was settled by Ronaldo, who produced a sumptuous nutmeg, exercised superhuman strength and buried a shot from outside the box into the bottom corner with his weaker foot.
A superb Okocha strike and a Celestine Babayaro goal earned a 2-0 quarter-final victory over Mexico and a rematch with what was widely regarded as a meliorated model of the reigning world champions. Predictably, Brazil were leading 3-1 – Nigeria’s goal had been courtesy of Roberto Carlos putting through his own net – with 12 minutes remaining. Unpredictably, a miracle fightback ensured.
Victor Ikpeba pulled one back with a fine strike from distance, before Kanu received the ball, with his back to goal inside a congested six-yard box and Dida pouncing on his heels, in injury time. Two days after his 20th birthday, the towering forward flicked the ball up over the Brazil goalkeeper, spun and stabbed it over the line to ensure a Golden Goal would determine the outcome.
Kanu himself would score it. A hopeful punt forward hit Ikpeba on the back and bounded into the path of the new Inter Milan man just outside the area. Kanu produced a heavenly first touch to con Aldair and Ronaldo Guiaro into blocking thin air, before sliding the ball past Dida. Nigeria were in the final.
"Beating Brazil boosted our confidence because it was a dramatic match,” said Amuneke. “We were almost out, but we fought and pulled it off.”
Argentina had beaten Spain 4-0 and Portugal 2-0 to reach the decider, and their status as favourites was fortified by taking a third-minute lead through ‘The Louse’ Lopez. Babayaro equaliser with a fierce header, and celebrated with a dance more eye-catching than anything seen at the lavish Opening Ceremony, but after Ortega was tripped, Crespo restored the lead for Daniel Passarella’s side from the spot.
In the 74th minute, Kanu headed on a long throw and Daniel Amokachi magically lobbed goalkeeper Pablo Cavallero. Then, in the 90th minute, Argentina attempted to play the offside trap to combat a Nigeria free-kick, only to leave substitute Amuneke free to volley home. The ‘Dream Team’ had turned Nigeria into dreamland.
“This means everything to Nigeria,” said Okocha. “Football is the one thing in Nigeria that brings us together. For the people back in my country, this may be the happiest day of their lives.”
Amuneke explained to FIFA.com: “Two days before the final, our coach, Jo Bonfrere, told me that some people were complaining that I was not playing at my best for the team. But in the match, he told me to stay warmed up and, as fate would have it, I scored the winning goal.
“Before going to the Olympics, there was an agreement with Barcelona, but I was struggling with injury, so there were doubts about my ability. But after the Olympics, Barcelona picked up their interest again, and I eventually moved there. The impact I made in Atlanta allowed people to see that this guy is a good player and you can count on him."
“It was the manner in which we won the competition that made us incredibly happy,” Daniel Amokachi told 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.
“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.”
“The character, maturity and mentality of us all is what made us into champions. 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.”
Centennial champion, no less.