OLYMPIC GAMES: Football: Nigerians savour the gold and the glory

Click to follow
The Independent Online
They danced through the Argentine defence and then they danced around the stadium in joyful delirium. Nigeria put the smile back into football with a thrilling 3-2 gold medal win over Argentina in front of more than 86,000 people at the Olympic final in Athens, Georgia, on Saturday.

If you felt Euro 96 was a bit of a letdown, buy the video of this one, sit back and enjoy. "The future belongs to us," midfielder Augustine Okocha said after the game. No one who watched this one could disagree.

Twice down to early goals in each half, the Nigerians surged forward in a green-and-white blur to equalise through Everton's Daniel Amokachi with 17 minutes left. It looked like a "golden goal" sudden-death period was looming when Wilson Oruma stepped up to take a free-kick out on the left. By the time the ball was in the air, the Argentine defence had rushed out to spring an offside trap, leaving four Nigerians clear in front of goal. No flag went up and Emmanuel Amunike tucked the ball past goalkeeper Pablo Cavallero for the winner.

It may have been within regular time but it was a golden goal, giving the African side the top medal, with Argentina settling for silver and Brazil, who thrashed Portugal 5-0 in the third-place play-off, the bronze.

Claudio Lopez had headed Argentina into the lead in the second minute. Celestine Babayaro soared above the Argentine defence in the 27th minute for the equaliser. Three minutes after the break, a blatant dive by midfielder Ariel Ortega won Argentina a penalty, converted by Hernan Crespo. With 17 minutes left, Babayaro took a throw-in from the left, Kanu back-headed it on, Oliseh totally missed an attempted shot but Amokachi reacted quickly to flick the ball over Cavallero.

After Amunike's 89th-minute winner, the Nigerians survived a hectic five minutes of injury time then danced a jig around Sanford Stadium at the University of Georgia, where they had staged a similar comeback to defeat mighty Brazil 4-3 in the semi-final.

With their dazzling attacking football and sheer joy, they may have done more for football in the States than the entire 1994 World Cup. Many American fans painted their faces in the green and white of Nigeria.

"This was important not only for Nigeria but for the entire world," said Nigeria's coach, Jo Bonfrere. "It's great to see attacking football pay off. I tell my players not to play the ball back. When you have a one- on-one chance, always go forward."

"I am happy because now people can see how football in Africa has developed," Babayaro said. "I think we won because we mix the African way with the Brazilian way."

Nigeria: Dosu; Obaraku (Oruma, 61), West, Uche, Babayaro, Okocha (Lawal, 58), Amokachi, Oliseh, Babangida, Kanu, Ikpeba (Amunike, 72).

Argentina: Cavallero; Sensini, Ayala, Chamot, Zanetti, Almeyda, Morales (Simeone, 58), Bassedas, Ortega, Crespo, Lopez.

Referee: P Collina (It).