World Cup: Nigeria's Sunday worship
World Cup: Spain are stunned as the Olympic champions come from behind to win in superb style; Spain 2 Nigeria 3 Hierro 21 Adepoju 24 Raul 47 Lawal 73 Oliseh 79 Half-time: 1-1 Attendance: 33,257
Sunday 14 June 1998
When a team links together in harmony, passing and moving with one purpose, it reminds you of the potential of this often maddening game. When two teams do so for long periods of the same match, as they did yesterday, the result is a rhythm of ball and man that renders all hype unnecessary and lifts the game up where it belongs.
Twice Spain, their running off the ball initially astonishing, took the lead; twice Nigeria came from behind with both passion and prowess and won a joyous, memorable victory with a marvellous 30-yard shot from Sunday Oliseh. These are two of the competition's dark horses, just outside the elite four or five favourites; we can only await the charge of the light horse brigade with breath bated.
"Yes, I know I look like the Pope," said Bora Milutinovic, Nigeria's Yugoslav coach, dressed in traditional Nigerian robes. "I feel like the Pope. This win is so special for me, for the players and for the people of Nigeria. I am so happy for the people of Nigeria. We showed great fighting spirit. But this is just one small step and today the luck was with us. I'm overjoyed because I didn't expect the result. I thought we were excellent. We need a minimum of five points."
The game almost got off to a sensational scoring start when, from Fernando Hierro's long ball forward from the kick-off, Uche Okechukwu headed only to Raul and his snap shot was just turned aside by Peter Rufai; 10 seconds gone and Bryan Robson's 27-second goal for England against France in Spain in 1982 almost eclipsed.
Within another couple of minutes Raul met Albert Ferrer's cross from the right with a firm header from around the penalty spot and watched it thump off the Nigerians' crossbar; Spain were making a breathtaking start to the game, the towering Hierro and Miguel Angel Nadal dominating midfield, though the Africans served some notice themselves, Victor Ikpeba's drive was touched away by Andoni Zubizarreta.
Then came the deserved Spanish lead. Mobi Oparaku was adjudged to have nudged Alfonso and Hierro curled home low and cannily the free-kick from 20 yards. Nigeria needed inspiration and they had Finidi George: within three minutes his corner from the left was met by Mutiu Adepoju, who headed home at the near post as Hierro proved himself human by failing to cut out the cross.
Now the Nigerians, mobility itself, were warming to the task of countering a side excitingly fluid of formation. Austin Okocha's crossfield pass to George had you purring, Oliseh amused by trying his luck from 55 yards - held by Zubizarreta. Ikpeba, though shooting into the side netting, looked twice the player he was for Monaco against Manchester United, showing how he could be African player of the year.
Reorganised at half-time, though, with Chelsea's imminent arrival Ferrer an absentee after the break, Spain took the lead within 80 seconds of the restart with a stunning goal. Hierro clipped a beautiful through ball over Oparaku into the inside left slot and Raul touched home a neat volley.
Surely Nigerian jaws would drop, as stereotype has it, and Spain would go on to a comfortable victory as the game stretched and mistakes increased on the sodden, tiring surface. Still the Nigerian percussionists in the crowd played on, though, optimism undimmed, and on the Nigerian team played. These are proud Olympic champions, after all. Indeed, and instead it was the Spanish who tired, unable to sustain the high tempo they had set themselves.
When Nadal and Rafael Alkorta went for the same ball, it left the substitute Rashidi Yekini in space to feed Garba Lawal on the left and his low cross was only turned into his own net by Zubizarreta, the goalkeeper clearly expecting the ball to be cut back more acutely.
When Raul turned wide Etxeberria's low cross for Spain soon after, you sensed they might come to regret it. And so they did: when Hierro's clearing header - by no means a bad one - from Okocha's long throw fell to Oliseh, his thumping half- volley flew into the net via the inside of a post. This time Zubizarreta was guiltless.
Even then it was not quite all over; Yekini seeking to gild the lily with a bicycle kick just too high and Sergi curling a shot inches too high at the other end. The Nigerians were all but home, though. They say an African side will win the World Cup one of these days. Is one day next month too soon?
Spain (4-2-3-1): Zubizarreta (Valencia); Ferrer (Barcelona), Alkorta (Athletic Bilbao), Sergi (Barcelona), Campo (Real Mallorca); Luis Enrique (Barcelona), Nadal (Barcelona); Hierro (Real Madrid), Kiko (Atletico Madrid), Raul (Real Madrid); Alfonso (Real Betis). Substitutes: Amor (Barcelona) for Ferrer, h-t; Etxeberria (Athletic Bilbao) for Alfonso, 57; Celades (Barcelona) for Nadal, 76,
Nigeria (4-4-2): Rufai (Deportivo La Coruna); Oparaku (Kapellen), Okechukwu (Fenerbahce), West (Internazionale), Babayaro (Chelsea); George (Real Betis), Oliseh (Ajax), Lawal (Roda JC Kerkrade), Okocha (Fenerbahce); Adepoju (Real Sociedad), Ikpeba (Monaco). Substitutes: Yekini (FC Zurich) for Oparaku, 69, Babangida (Ajax) for Ikpeba 83, Okpara (Strasbourg) for Lawal, 90.
Referee: E Baharmast (USA).
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