Magic Moments: The Miracle of Atlanta 96.

nigeria 1996

Brazil is widely known as the “Home of football”. The country has been known to produce loads of football legends from Zico to Socrates to Pele to Ronaldo de Lima to  Ronaldinho and they are still spurning out new and more stars for the world to appreciate.

It is then believed that with such array of stars, at any tournament they feature, they are automatically the favourites, be it the Junior World Cup, the Senior World Cup to Copa America, Olympic Game Competition and many more.

Lets walk down memory lane to July 31, 1996 in Atlanta USA, the Olympic Games was at it’s peak with activities.

In the football category, World Champion Brazil who were undoubtedly the pre-tournament favourites was holding the African representative, Nigeria hostage 3-1 in the 1st 45 minutes of the Semi-finals and the Brazilian side were already exuding with confidence and skills.

First, Brazil assembled one of the best team ever. With incredible players like, Bebeto, Juninho, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos. They wanted to make history as a country that has won every football competition they ever participated.

They wanted to win the Olympics gold medal for the football event for the first time.

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The team that was filled with stars was coached by national team manager Mario Zagallo. With star players like Ronaldo and Bebeto in attendance, the South Americans suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Japan in their first match, but the team recovered to reach the semi-finals. There, they met Nigeria, which had already lost to Brazil in the group stage. The Africans had a team composed of star players from several European leagues, and five had competed in the 1994 World Cup. But at this moment,  the “Super Eagles” trailed 3-1 at the interval.

An impossible task to overturn by the African side, the game dragged on slowly and it seemed like the Brazilians were finally going to win this one, but, in the game of football, in the voice of former Manchester United coach Sir Alex Ferguson, “its never over, until it’s over”.

The Brazilian players were just waiting for the time to tick away. They have previously beaten Nigeria 1–0 in the group stage of the competition and they seem to have weighed them out again. So the Brazilian coach began to substitute his key players like Ronaldo, Juninho… to preserve them for the finals. But he was in for a big surprise.

Like a stroke of lighting, the Nigeria team like wounded lions woke up from their slumber, at the 76th minute,  Monaco player Victor Ikepba  got a loose pass and hit a shot from 20 meters to score the second goal. The scoreboard read 3-2, Game on.

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At that moment, the pressure was upon Brazil, the Nigeria team so motivated began to fire from every angle as the Brazilians struggled to contain them.

Thirty seconds to go Nigeria got a throw-in Austin “Jay Jay” Okocka threw the ball to Teslim Fatusi who did not connect strongly but managed to get it to Kanu Nwankwo. The predatory “Papilo” must have quickly thanked the “god of soccer” in his heart as loping the ball beyond the reach of Dida, the Brazilian goalkeeper, and between the legs of another defender 3-3 at full time. The whole stadium went agog!

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Following the late shot by Nwankwo Kanu, the match was forced the match into overtime. For the first time the, “golden goal” rule was in force, meaning the first team to score in extra time would win the match.

It was extra time, and the biggest stage, then, to test FIFA’s now rested “Golden Goal” rule. The match would end if any team scored, no time to respond if you concede. The Brazilians, who were uncharacteristically wasting time feigning injuries and all what not, resumed the match with gusto. A great chance soon went wide for them.

But then it was meant to be Nigeria’s day.

A harmless pass got to the lanky Kanu who sold a dummy to Aldair the central defender of Brazil. Dida was out to narrow the angle but Kanu release a ferocious left footer to the left of the Brazilian goalie, and Nigeria sailed to the final.

It’s a g-o-a-l! It’s a g-o-a-l! One could hear the deafening shout all over.  It was like the whole Nigeria was shouting at the same time. Kanu had scored again in just 3 minutes of the extra time. As the center referee picked up the ball and blew the final whistle. It was all over! Everyone ran out of their sitting room shouting,” Up Nigeria! “Up Nigeria!”

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Right there in Atlanta the celebration was the same. Never had the 64, 000 spectators at the stadium seen such a turn around in one game. It was to be a one sided game;

It was not the first time Nigeria team had performed such feat. They did similar thing in the world youth championship (WYC) in Saudi Arabia. What is popularly known in Nigeria as “the Daman Miracle” But the Atlanta 96 victory over Brazil was so remarkable. It was a sweet revenge after all.

And at the streets of Lagos, everyone came out. Many football fans over joy, pulled off their clothes and ran stack naked on the street. Some rolled out Vehicle tires and set up burn fire on the highway to light up the night. It was about 10pm, and many restaurant and local bar owners re-opened and made sales like never before. Everyone was in a celebration mood. Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa people sat together and drank. Muslim, Christians came together and talked about the game. The difference doesn’t seem to matter anymore. People gathered in groups, sang and ran cross country in celebration of the victory. Unbelievable! The Nigeria dream team had beaten the almighty Brazil at the semi finals of Atlanta 96 Olympics football event.

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Nigeria encountered a second South American opponent in the final on August 3, 1996, Argentina. The pulsating match was somewhat overshadowed by blunders from the referee and his linesman. Argentina pulled ahead 2-1 from a rather undeserved spot kick. But Nigerians went on to celebrate Africa’s first Olympic gold medal in football by winning 3-2. It was the first time an African country would win it!

And the Brazilian game will always be remembered as “The Miracle of Atlanta”.

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