Nigeria were defeated last night while they still had their hands in their pockets. Two goals went in before the Super Eagles lifted from their nest. Man for man, the Nigerians may have been the best, certainly the most exciting team in this World Cup, Brazil not excepted. But they were perhaps also the least prepared of the teams which could be regarded as genuine contenders.
Confusions and lack of finance in Lagos meant that Nigeria played only two games against international opposition in the four months before the finals (both defeats, 0-1 to Germany and 1-5 to the Netherlands). A few days before France 98 began, a cabal of senior players, led by the former Everton striker Daniel Amokachi, tried to ditch the coach, Bora Milutinovic. They had agreed with the Nigerian president that it was time for a change. The night the president was due to confirm the decision, he died of a heart attack. Milutinovic survived.
The failed coup caused great dissension within the squad, with Victor Ikpeba telling the French daily L'Equipe that a small clique of players was ruining the team's chances. Ikpeba was treated as a pariah by the coup-plotters, until his goal against Bulgaria in the second group game to put Nigeria into the second stage.
The extraordinary course of the first Nigerian game - a stirring 3-2 win against Spain after the Super Eagles were twice behind - seemed to rout the doubters. This team was virtually the team who won the Olympic gold in 1996, beating Brazil and Argentina, in similarly disjointed, cavalier fashion.They might go behind but, in the important games, it seemed that they would always call on some outrageous piece of skill to win through. This romantic notion also died last night.
There was no doubt from the first minute at the Stade de France which team was the better organised and the better prepared. Two Nigerian players stood out from a performance, which grew increasingly chaotic after the fine, third Danish goal went in. The first was Jay-Jay Okocha, who produced a performance of great skill and passion. The second was Nwankwo Kanu, starting his first game in a World Cup finals two years after he was told that he would - or should - never play football again. The congenital heart fault discovered after he was transferred to Internazionale in 1996 was cured in an operation last year. He, too, played with energy and passion , but he faded in the second half, and was forlornly substituted.