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The Round of 16 at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™ served up an intriguing encounter between Nigeria and Italy.
As three-time world champions and bronze medallists at the previous edition, the Azzurri were pre-match favourites against a Super Eagles side making their first appearance at the finals. And while Nigeria came agonisingly close to registering one of the shocks of the tournament, in the end it was Italy who prevailed with Roberto Baggio the hero in an extra-time win that paved the way for another final appearance.
[[flag-nga-s]] Nigeria 1-2 Italy [[flag-ita-s]] Italy win after extra time 5 July 1994 | Foxboro Stadium, Boston
Goalscorers: Nigeria (Emmanuel Amuneke 25’) | Italy (Roberto Baggio 88’, 102’)
Line-ups: Nigeria: Peter Rufai (c), Augustine Eguavoen, Uche Okechukwu, Chidi Nwanu, Finidi George, Jay Jay Okocha, Emmanuel Amuneke (Thompson Oliha 57’), Rasheed Yekini, Daniel Amokachi (Mutiu Adepoju 35’), Sunday Oliseh, Michael Emenalo Italy: Luca Marchegiani, Antonio Benarrivo, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini (c), Roberto Mussi, Roberto Baggio, Demetrio Albertini, Nicola Berti (Dino Baggio 45’), Roberto Donadoni, Daniele Massaro, Giuseppe Signori (Gianfranco Zola 65’)
After successive disappointments in the African qualifiers, Nigeria made it to the World Cup for the first time at USA 1994. Drawn in a tough group with Argentina, Greece and Bulgaria, the Super Eagles defied expectations to top the section with wins over Bulgaria and Greece and a loss to Argentina to reach the last 16 on their maiden appearance at the global showpiece.
Italy, on the other hand, struggled to reach the Round of 16. With all four Group E sides (Mexico, Republic of Ireland, Norway and Italy) finishing level on points and goal difference, the Azzurri progressed to the knockout stage by virtue of scoring one more goal than the Norwegians.
Three key incidents affected the outcome of the game:
A shift in the balance of power: Despite stunning those at Boston’s Foxboro Stadium with the game’s opening goal, Emmanuel Amuneke was substituted on 57 minutes by coach Clemens Westerhof, who had already replaced Daniel Amokachi after just 35 minutes. These changes eased the pressure on Italy’s defence, allowing the Azzurri to take the game to their opponents, who increasingly retreated into their defensive shell to run down the clock.
Mission improbable: Italy's task became even more difficult in the 76th minute, when Gianfranco Zola was sent off only 12 minutes after coming on. Attempting to retrieve the ball, the diminutive striker made what was deemed to be a violent tackle on Augustine Eguavoen. Convinced it did not warrant a red card, a stunned Zola sank to his knees saying “no no no”, initially refusing to leave the pitch until Nigeria’s players calmed him down.
Avoidable mistake: After his part in Zola’s red card, Eguavoen then gifted Italy a penalty by bringing down Benarrivo from behind just inside the box. Baggio calmly converted it for what would prove to be the winning goal. Speaking after the game, Eguavoen admitted his tackle had been unnecessary, saying, "We lost the match because of that penalty kick and I could’ve avoided the mistake that led to it."
After unconvincing performances in the group stage, where he failed to score, Roberto Baggio proved Italy’s saviour against Nigeria with a priceless equalizer two minutes before the end of normal time.
Speaking later about that goal, the Divine Ponytail said, "It released all the stress I was under, and after that I started to play more comfortably." Indeed, the Italian would go on to score the winner from the spot with a low strike that wrong-footed Rufai and flew in off his right-hand post.
What they said
“The World Cup begins now; not just for me, but for Italy.” Roberto Baggio, after his brace against Nigeria
“I imagined myself getting on a plane to somewhere no one knows.” Italy coach Arrigo Sacchi, when asked what was going through his mind with 15 minutes of normal time remaining
"The game is never over until the final whistle sounds. You don't rejoice prematurely. We had possession and were passing the ball routinely, but we lost concentration in one moment. When you face players like Baggio, they punish you for those kinds of mistakes." Finidi George, Nigeria midfielder
What happened next
Baggio continued his superb form in the subsequent games. In the quarter-finals, he scored the winner against Spain, before bagging another brace against Bulgaria to secure his side’s place in the final against Brazil. However, Italian dreams were shattered in the decider when, in a moment Azzurri fans will never forget, he missed the decisive penalty in the shootout.
Nigeria, for their part, returned to the USA two years later to claim the gold medal in the Men’s Football Tournament at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. That side contained five members of the 1994 squad that registered the Super Eagles’ joint-best finish at the World Cup.