On 3 August 1996, Nigeria accomplished one of the greatest sporting feats in the country’s history, as their “Dream Team” defeated Argentina 3-2 to emerge victorious from the Olympic Football Tournament in Atlanta and give a literal twist to the phrase “golden generation”. Two decades later, the “Dream Team VI”* *may not have managed to replicate that glorious achievement, but by beating Honduras 3-2 to earn a bronze medal on Saturday, they ensured that they would leave Rio 2016 on a high note.
“This bronze medal means a lot to us,” striker Sadiq Umar, who scored a brace in Belo Horizonte, told FIFA.com. “It’s like winning a World Cup! I really think it was a brilliant performance. And most importantly, we deserved to win. We worked so hard to get results in this tournament. We had some great matches, and showed great team spirit and teamwork. Of course we would have preferred a gold medal, but the bronze is worth just as much to me,” added the imposing 19-year-old.
As the only Olympic medal obtained to date by Nigeria at Rio 2016, the football team’s success is historic for the country as a whole. And it has not been an easy road for the Africans, who had to negotiate a tricky group phase, during which they pulled off two tight wins and lost 2-0 to Colombia, and subsequently see off Denmark 2-0 in the quarter-finals, before losing to Germany by the same scoreline in the semi-finals.
Even in the bronze medal match, where they raced to a seemingly unassailable 3-0 lead, they still had to withstand a spirited comeback by Los Catrachos, who got two goals back to set up a nervy finish.
“Nigeria had a good tournament if you take into account all the problems they ran into before the competition. The players can be proud of finishing third,” said 1996 gold medallist Sunday Oliseh, who picked up 54 caps for the Super Eagles and is now a member of the FIFA Technical Study Group. “Winning this medal is magnificent for Nigerian football. We won gold in 1996 and silver in 2008, so we just needed a bronze for our collection. Now we’ve got them all.”
From Atlanta to Rio While the crop of players that reigned supreme in 1996 boasted some impressive individual talents – Jay Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, and the aforementioned Oliseh, for example – as well as a remarkable sense of unity that saw them extricate themselves from a number of difficult situations in Atlanta, the 2016 team contains some equally exciting young starlets. They have all flourished in Rio under the leadership of Mikel John Obi, who was involved in all three Nigerian goals against Honduras.
“There are some excellent individual players in this team,” continued Oliseh. “I’ve enjoyed watching Abdullahi Shehu at the back, who entertained us all when he got up to support the attack. Okechukwu Azubuike also caught my eye, as did Sadiq Umar, who was very solid in the role of forward. There’s quality running right through this team. Collectively, they’ve also had some nice moments during the tournament, but unfortunately the match against Germany revealed their limitations.”
Is it fair, then, to compare the 1996 and 2016 generations, in Oliseh’s opinion? “No, I don’t think so. Every country talks about its own golden generation, and Nigeria is no different. You can’t have several golden generations, or at least not in a short space of time," explained the former Olympian.
“When you look back, the greatest-ever Nigerian success was achieved at an Olympic Football Tournament,” noted Umar. “ I wasn’t actually born, but since I was young I’ve heard people talking about Atlanta 1996 this and Atlanta 1996 that. That was simply the biggest moment in Nigerian football history. Of course, they won gold and we won bronze. They wrote a whole new page in our history. But I’d like to think that with this victory, we’ve at least added a few new lines to that story.”