Amuneke: Nigeria can repeat 1996 heroics

When the Olympic Men's Football Tournament kicks off later this year in Rio de Janeiro, Nigeria's football mad supporters will be anxious for their side to emulate the memorable success of the original Nigerian 'Dream Team'. It was 20 years ago this summer that a renowned Nigerian team stunned Argentina 3-2 in the 1996 final in front of almost 90,000 people near Atlanta to become the first African football nation to win Olympic gold.

The winning goal was scored by Emmanuel Amuneke, who came on in the 72nd minute. It was a life-changing moment for the striker, who at the time was contracted to Sporting Lisbon. “Before going to the Olympics, there was an agreement with Barcelona, but I was struggling with injury, so there were doubts about my ability,” Amuneke recalled in an interview with "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."

Making golden memories Although they had made waves at the 1994 FIFA World Cup, which was also in the USA, little was expected of the west Africans, who were drawn into a tough group in the 16-team tournament, with favourites Brazil among their opponents. Victories against Japan and Hungary were enough to send the team into the knockout rounds despite a 1-0 defeat to A Selecao. In the quarter-final, the Nigerians impressively defeated Mexico 2-0 with goals from Jay-Jay Okocha and Celestine Babayaro to set up a rematch with mighty Brazil in the last four. It was a game that will live long in the memory.

With 12 minutes remaining, Brazil were leading 3-1 and inching closer to a first gold medal that today is still missing from their impressive haul of football titles. Victor Ikpeba pulled one back in the 78th minute before Nwankwo Kanu scored a dramatic last-gasp equaliser. Four minutes into extra time the lanky striker made it three goals in a quarter-hour with a golden goal. “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," said Amuneke. "Don’t forget we had some players who featured for the senior national team at the 1994 World Cup. But beating Brazil boosted our confidence because it was a dramatic match. We were almost out, but we fought and pulled it off.”

Amuneke, who had already earned his place in Nigerian footballing folklore by scoring both goals in the Super Eagles' 2-1 victory against Zambia in the 1994 CAF Africa Cup of Nations final, was benched for the gold medal match despite having started in all games leading up to the final. However, he was to make a huge impact, entering the contest in the latter stages and scoring another dramatic last-minute winner. “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. So I was happy that when I came on, I contributed my own part to the team.”

Expectations and differences Despite a career limited by injuries, Amuneke has remained a leader in Nigerian football and currently coaches the country's U-17 side. He is confident that the Dream Team VI can do well in Rio. “We have to be realistic about our chances too. It is not going to be an easy task, but the coach (Samson Siasia) is experienced. He was in charge when Nigeria won the silver medal in 2008 and also led the team to second at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in 2005.”

He does see some key differences between the Class of 96 and the current team. “We had a very experienced team in 1996 with a lot of talented players most of whom had also played at the FIFA World Cup in 1994. I’m not saying that the players we have now are not talented, but I think winning tournaments these days is not only about talent. It is about how the players can adapt to the changes and demands of the games along the way.”

Amuneke, who says that his gold medal was stolen from his house in Lagos a few years ago, remains confident though, saying: “There is nothing to say Nigeria cannot repeat the feat of 1996. It was a beautiful thing that we laid the foundation and others have followed our path, and I think our current team can repeat that success.”