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Global giants, Brazil and Argentina started as the hot favourites for gold in the men’s football tournament, with squads packed with famous players. Nigeria, by contrast, seemed to be in a state of disarray. Their preparations for Atlanta had been affected by a political dispute that saw the national team withdraw from the African Cup of Nations, and then further hampered by seemingly endless arguments about who should be included in their Olympic squad.
Having said that, the “Super Eagles” did have considerable international pedigree. In addition to their senior team reaching the of the 1994 FIFA World Cup, their youth team had won the FIFA U17 World Cup a year earlier. with a number of the players who had contributed to that success had since being promoted to the senior squad. And despite the difficult preparations for the Olympics, they quickly rediscovered their cohesion and started the tournament with victories over Japan and Hungary.
Defeat to Brazil in their final group stage match did not prevent them from qualifying for the quarter-finals, where they beat Mexico to set up a rematch with the Brazilians in the semi-finals. Suddenly their chaotic build-up to the tournament seemed like a distant memory, and they now had their sights firmly targeted on a medal.
However, such hopes looked to be diminishing as Brazil opened up a 3-1 lead, and Nigeria squandered a penalty. But then with just quarter of an hour remaining, a long-range shot from Victor Ikpeba reduced the arrears and, in a tumultuous final minute, Nwankwo Kanu scored a superb goal to bring the scores level. Galvanised with renewed self-belief, the Nigerians now went in pursuit of victory. Kanu scored again early in extra-time, which was enough to earn a dramatic 4-3 win and a place in the final.
The only thing now standing between them and the gold medal were Argentina. It was a daunting challenge, and one made all the more difficult when Claudio López gave the favourites an early lead. However, the Nigerians did not lose heart. Celestine Babayaro equalised; and when Hernán Crespo restored Argentina’s lead from the penalty spot, the Super Eagles bounced back again, as Daniel Amokachi made it 2-2.
Then, with less than two minutes left to play, Nigeria got a free kick in a dangerous area. The ball fell to substitute Emmanuel Amunike and he hammered home to secure a truly remarkable victory. The team that had arrived in a state of disarray, went home as Olympic champions.