A memoir of Nigeria's Atlanta 96 Exploits


By Nduka Orjinmo

The Olympics have always held a special attraction for me.
Although I am a football fan, the common sight of athletes: men and women from virtually all cultural backgrounds and nationalities of the world competing for honours in the true spirit of the humanity shared and cherished by the global community makes it an unfading part of (my) memory.
The charm, the allure and the glitz of the opening ceremony makes it extra special.
The memories personal, the victories emotional, the losses gallant and the patriotism unadulterated.
In the theme song for the 1996 games held in Atlanta USA, this height of feeling and friendship is captured almost beyond words in Gloria Estefan's enduring song, If I Could Reach.

Which brings to mind one special night during the games of that year. I recall hanging on my dad’s shoulder, his chest bare, hands flapping. I was floating in the sky, knickers sagged, the gentle pitch of my voice stretched to the cords; impeded from echoing in what should have been quiet empty stalls, by voices hoarse and brassy, screaming more than a teen.

Even my mum would not be denied the occasion, she had stayed awake all night, she had borne the anxiety of the anticipation, she had kept a patriotic vigil with the men. She would not be denied. The gentle tambourine sounds of her steel plate and spoon, supplied the music for the dance.

There must have been 20 or so odd men packed into father’s shop, the ladies no more than two. I must have fallen asleep before the match, as we waited. In those days we could not afford the luxury of tactical conferences that precede almost any match these days. We built up anticipation from the pages of newspapers. That was all. I was lucky, father’s shop was a library for newspapers. We all started from the back pages: my brothers, my uncle, father the gang that thronged to the shop every evening for the daily reading ritual and me. Always the back pages. It was the norm.

And so that day, I have forgotten what month it was, what day it was or what time the match was played. But I remember the buildup, I remember going with father to buy fuel for the generator, some extra five litres more than the usual, because of the match.

When we came back, the gang had gathered, their voices rising and rising with frenzied passion like paper kites in an October breeze. Mother was across the counter, handing goods to patrons who came by, the men staying an extra five minutes to contribute in the conference.

What we did for the rest of the day I can’t remember. How we killed time in its slow journey before the match I can’t recall. Maybe we argued, maybe we slept, but certainly we had supper on time, mum knew better than to leave it too close to kick off.

The match must have been late, because when we walked from our house to the shop, the streets were vacant, the roads were empty. Only few people then had generators; NEPA wasn’t any more reliable.

So we gathered, tens of us packed in my father’s shop, a further ten standing on their toes outside, a twosome at the single window, a further two gaining a peek from the channel beneath their arms. The generator hummed in the dark, a naked lamp burned and shed its light from the back. It belonged to the land lady, wide awake and uninterested, thinking us unlucky for such an attachment.

Then the match began.

At first we watched in silence, shoulders touching each other, more for lack of space than patriotism. Then our anxiety gently ebbed, our team was not faring so badly after all.

I remember Dosu Joseph in goal, I thought he was invincible, the presence of Uche Okechukwu was comforting in defence, Taribo’s rainbow braids an assurance of steel and rigidity. Then there was the handsome Celestine Babayaro, the powerful Mobi Oparaku on the right. My role model was Sunday Oliseh, his number 15 jersey was my favourite. There was the incorrigible Jay Jay Okocha, his smile belying his lack of finesse in the set-pieces. There was the ever reliable Dan Amokachi, pacy Emmanuel Amuneke, the frail and likeable Kanu Nwankwo upfront; I felt I was stronger than him. My father said Kanu had once played for Iwuanyawu Nationale and that they always troubled Sharks. I took a little an instant dislike for him, our neigbour Anaebo was a Nationale supporter, he was always arguing with my father. Then there was Tijani Babaginda, I thought he was the former President’s son.

Then our opponents scored, and the silence literally froze us. One could stretch out a hand and touch it; it was like our fears were becoming real.

But the Dream Team, as our national U-23 side is called, did not wait long to draw level. '''The manner in which the goal came was of no interest to us at that moment'''.

Then the game went on and on, and on and on.

Their number nine was tearing our defenders with his pace, his step- overs a constant torn as the Sun shone brightly. Then I would ask my dad why they had day and we night here, he would explain something about the Sun and Moon.

I recall Dosu making a good save to deny their number seven; he was the most famous player they brought to the Olympics. I had seen him at the World Cup two years before, once before I copied Oliseh, I modeled my game on his.

Then Tijani had the ball. By the time he beat the first man and was close to the 18 yard box, 10 men had stood up, by the time he went past the second, we all were on our feet. My neighbour’s meaty arm blocking my view, I had to get underneath to see. Just in time for Tijani to move the ball a yard more, Kanu Nwankwo standing alone in the six yard box, he was never going to miss from there. All that was needed was for Tijani to pass the ball to him, just pass the ball all six yards. But he chose to go for goal and in that moment several hearts sank as the ball hit the side netting. We dropped to our seats like leaves stricken by too much sun.
Then I saw him running, the number nine terrorizing our defence all day. He ran and others pursued in joy.

“Wetin happen?” It was papa Nnamdi asking. Sweat pouring down his bald head, his towel dripping sweat from drying sweat. “Them don score”, someone replied.

Our heads dropped. That selfishness of Tijani had cost us dearly. We missed both goals, both ways. My country missed an opportunity, while we watching missed how our opponents scored. All because of Tijani.

I can’t remember most of the game again, but they got a third goal. I can’t remember the move, or the goal scorer.

But we got a second goal, supplied by a municipality Prince.

Our hearts stood, our heartbeats became the chimes of the slim hand of the clock. Every movement taking us to the end, victory looking slimmer by our own heartbeats: the clock.

Then our heartbeats struck once more, it was two minutes to go.

I remember Teslim Fatusi, was that the only match he played for the country? There was a throw-in on the right, Mobi Oparaku did a shot one to Fatusi. He controlled the ball on his lap, brought it down, and sold his marker a dummy with a roller-coaster…

…Our players were fighting for every ball, their spirit charged beyond mortality. Their number nine dropped to the floor, Taribo would not take any of it, his dreadlocks dangled in angry agreement as he made to lift the man off the pitch by himself, he knew there was still time, that was the spirit of the Nigerian, we never said never…

…the ball got into the area, the leggy Kanu waiting for Fatusi, he had his back to goal. Then the ball got to him, his back still to goal, the box packed full of players. There must have been all 11 players of our team in that box, our opponents too had equal numbers. Scoring a goal with your back to the post in that crowd seemed impossible.

Then it happened.

With such calmness like my mum slicing pumpkin leaves, he lifted the ball off the ground, spun 360 degrees, and hit it past the goalkeeper, all in one move.
I can’t remember what happened next, how I got onto the street, how the empty stalls no longer echoed, how the streets were no longer empty, how a crowd appeared on the empty road. I can’t remember. But I remember our screams, harmonized like the melodies of a thousand choirs.

But the game was not over, so the streets became empty again.

We returned to my father’s shop, four times the number this time. There must have been hundreds of us watching, how each man found space still beats me. But we watched the game.

It was the era of the golden goal rule. I never understood what it meant, or how it would happen. It was never discussed at the conferences.

I can remember the pass but not the passer, maybe it was a pull-out from Dosu, maybe it wasn’t. But the ball fell on the back of a running Daniel Amokachi, how our opponents left their defence so thin at such a moment points to their supreme confidence. Don’t blame them, they didn’t know we are Nigerians. We never say die.

The ball bounced off Amokachi’s back and fell kindly to Kanu, he beat his man easily with a drop of the shoulder and had a clear sight on goal.

He took it.

We all knew he had scored before the ball hit the back of the net.

The streets became full again, and that was when I landed on my father’s shoulder, that was when I heard my mother’s music, that was when I floated in the sky, my knickers sagging like the dropped head of Bebeto.

Nigeria had just qualified for the Olympics football final. We had just defeated the great Brazil.

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3 comments:

  1. Dats great!, sounds like what hapned @ d camp nou.....barcelona vs chelsea

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  2. Great reminiscing those days.
    I remember everybody running loose on the street before and after extra time - first to celebrate that Nigeria was not going to be humiliated and secondly to celebrate the humiliation of Brazil

    Just a quick correction to note, the ball bounced off the back of Ikpeba not Amochachi

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