Football: Nigeria invigorated by Ikpeba

Nigeria 1 Ikpeba 27 Bulgaria 0 Att: 48,500
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The Independent Online
IF ANY team can fulfil Pele's prophecy of an African World Cup winner before the year 2000 it is Nigeria, and yesterday they took another step on the way to doing so by becoming the third team to reach the knock- out stages of this millennium's last tournament.

The highlight of a sultry afternoon was a sublime goal by Victor Ikpeba, Africa's player of the year, but Nigeria will also remember a shot against their own bar six minutes from time by Emil Kostadinov.

Had he scored they would still be scrambling to escape from Group D. As it is, they can look forward to a second-round tie, probably against Denmark at the Stade de France a week tomorrow.

This was a match which encapsulated the ethos of the World Cup. Neither Nigeria nor Bulgaria, for economic and geographic reasons, required tickets on the scale England and Scotland wanted yet there was a near-full house drawn from across the football world. Outside people wearing shirts from Argentina, Japan and Brazil had mingled with those of Spain, France and Denmark, inside were draped flags from Germany, Romania and Luton Town.

The international flavour was reflected on the pitch, with only four players employed in their native countries. Eight, five Bulgarians and three Nigerians, play in Turkey, an indication of the rising wealth of the Turkish game even if the national team failed to qualify.

The neutrals supported Nigeria, partly because of their fresh football, partly because of their effervescent supporters, and mainly because, on this ground five years ago, Bulgaria knocked France out of the 1994 World Cup with a dramatic last-minute goal. The scorer, Kostadinov, was constantly booed.

Nigeria had brought in Daniel Amokachi, briefly at Everton, for Mobi Oparaku. This ostensibly gave them a more attacking shape than in the 3-2 win over Spain but, with Augustine Okocha man-marked by Zlatko Yankov, it initially made them more predictable. Bulgaria, who drew 0-0 with Paraguay in their opening game, had made three changes, including the return of Kostadinov.

What they needed, however, was an injection of youth. Under a hot Parisian sun Bulgaria looked a spent force against Nigeria's tyros. England, watching on television in Brittany, will have been pleased, Bulgaria are in the same Euro 2000 qualifying group.

It took just four minutes for Finidi George to bring a save from Zdravko Zdravkov. Taribo West then put a free header over the bar and Bulgaria, twice warned, retreated into defence. For 15 minutes the game stagnated but then the West Africans began to solve the puzzle and stretch the East Europeans, with Ikpeba heading narrowly wide from Celestine Babayaro's cross.

As Bulgaria courted further unpopularity when Marian Hristov conned the Chilean referee into booking Mutiu Adepoju there was joy unconfined when, after 28 minutes, Nigeria scored.

Babayaro, advancing on the left, found Okocha in rare space. He dummied to shoot, then slipped a pass to Amokachi. Two touches later Nigeria were ahead. The first, with the outside of Amokachi's boot, steered the ball to Ikpeba. The second poked the ball under Zdravkov, Trifon Ivanov having first been left floundering by Ikpeba's glorious turn.

Ikpeba rolled another shot wide a minute later and put a volley over but Bulgaria roused themselves to finish the half strongly with Krassimir Balakov prominent. First, he chipped narrowly wide after some delightful ball-skills. Then he induced a foul by Uche Okechukwu which cost the defender his second successive booking. He will be suspended for the Paraguay match.

Bulgaria, conscious that the Mercury was pushing 80 degrees Fahrenheit, sought to slow the game down in the second half and the Nigerians, with some self-indulgent play, let them. This enabled Bulgaria to come more into the game and Hristo Stoichkov almost equalised after 66 minutes when he diverted Kostadinov's cross-shot wide of the post.

Bulgaria also won a number of free-kicks and while they came to naught, Bora Mulitinovic sought to revive his team by bringing on, in turn, Nwankwo Kanu, to a rousing reception, Rashidi Yekini and Tijani Babangida.

Initially, only the tally of bookings rose - it reached six by the end - but Kanu, George, Garba Lawal and Yekini all went close as Nigeria looked to settle the match. Yet it was Bulgaria who came nearest to scoring when Kostadinov turned Adepoju on the left before rasping a shot against the bar.

NIGERIA (4-4-2): Rufai (Deportivo La Coruna); Adepoju (Real Sociedad), Okechukwu (Fenerbahce), West (Internazionale), Babayaro (Chelsea); George (Real Betis), Oliseh (Ajax), Okocha (Fenerbahce), Lawal (Roda JC Kerkrade); Amokachi (Besiktas), Ikpeba (Monaco). Substitutes: Kanu (Internaziolnale) for Amokachi, 67; Yekini (FC Zurich)for Ikpeba, 75; Babangida (Ajax) for George, 85.

BULGARIA (4-4-2): Zdravkov (Istanbulpor); Kishishev (Bursaspor), Ginchev (Antalya), Ivanov (CSKA Sofia), Petkov (Litex Lovetch); Iliev (Bursaspor), Yankov (Besiktas), Balakov (VfB Stuttgart), Hristov (Kaiserslauten); Kostadinov, Stoichkov (both CSKA Sofia). Substitutes: Borimirov (1860 Munich) for Hristov, h-t; Penev (Compostela) for Iliev, 69; Bachev (Slavia Sofia) for Yankov, 85.

Referee: M Sanchez Yanten (Chile).