ATLANTA Olympic Team( Dream Team)

Dream Turns Reality by (Gboyega Okegbenro). SATURDAY 3 August 1996 will remain a red-letter day in the annals ofNigeria's in ternational football history. On that day, the world soccer audience watched with palpa6/e excitement and disbeliefas Italian referee, Collina Pierluggi, vigorously shook hands with the Dream Team skipper, Nwankwo Kanu,after hisfinal whis tle that signalled the end ofthe epic final ofthe At lanta 96 Olympics soccer event. It was one moment of supreme achievement for the highly-motivated, determined and talented youths from Nigeria who, twice inthe game, had to fight back from agoal defi cit to level at 3-3; then go ahead to win the match in the extra time. Incredibly, Nigeria became Olympic champions,with a 3-2 victory over highly-favoured Argentina. The Dream Team, handled by the Dutchman, BonfrereJo, was simply unstoppable on that sunny afternoon; displaying a well-knit, high-class tactical pattern of play; fired by an indomitable Nigerian spirit (Nigeria's soccer trade-mark) that kept the 86,000 capacity crowd in awe. The attendant cel ebration was itself novel. Off the field, the Dream Team's Olympic victory vividly caught on with the world global sports audience, emblazoning all and sundry in the Nigerian colours of green-white-green. It was a day of endless celebration for all lovers of football in Nigeria, and by extension Africa, as well as Africans in the Diaspora. The 86,000 capacity crowd that watched the dramatic tie at the Sanford Stadium in Athens, Geor gia was on edge throughout the encounter which was decided by FIFA's golden goal rule. For Africa, it was an indisputable historic moment as Nigeria be came the first African country to win the Olympic soccer gold medal after 76 years of participation, dating back to Egypt's maiden (African) appearance atthe Antwerp Games in 1920. Before 1996, the best Africa ever achieved at the quadriennial event was a bronze medal, won by Ghana in 1992. With some benefit ofhindsight, it is perhaps arguable that the 1996 triumph was destined to be Nigeria's. In fact, within the corridors of the game at home and abroad, pundits equated the Dream Team's achievement with the triumph at a full-scale World Cup. This is probably due to FIFA's relaxation of the rules governing the age limit of the players for the Olympic Football event. For the first time ever, FIFA allowed countries to field a maximum of three overaged players after peggingthe ceiling at 23 years, thus ensuring that most teams fielded a near-capac itycomplement oftheir best brains and legs. Between FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the design was clear; particularly in the face of the failed clamourto change the World Cup from aquadriennial competitiontoa biennialcompetition. Having won the age-long battle with IOC to make footballa medalevent atthe Olympics, itwas FIFA's veiled agenda to still pursuethe vision ofa prospec tive two-yearly World Cup finals. The FIFA secretary general and chief proponent of that vision, Mr. Joseph Sepp Blatter (now President), used his executive position to maximum advantage in this regard. Without doubt, Nigeria's victory in Atlanta stands out as Africa'scrowningfootball achievement of the 21st century. The first team from outside Eu rope to win the Olympic gold in 68 years, the Niger ia's Dream Team did not justwin; it won in remark ablestyle, beating football superpowers likeMexico, Brazil and Argentina, among others. Infact, the Bra zilian team that Nigeria defeated in that exhilarating semi-final was not just a bunch ofhalf-baked play ers, but an A-grade squad complete with the world class stars such as Ronaldo (who was named World Footballer ofthe Year in 1996), Rivaldo (1999 Foot baller ofthe Year), Bebeto, and so on. Similarly, the Argentine squad that bowed to Nigeria in the final match paraded world class players such as Diego Simeone, Daniel 'little donkey' Ortega, and Himan Crespo. Though Ghana was the first country to put Af rica in the Olympics medal class for football, noth ing inNigeria's build-up to Atlanta '96signalledany claim to the top: not even from the competition's archives, as the nation's very first experience at Mexico '68 ended in disaster. Two defeats in the hands ofJapan and Spain (3-1 and 3-0 respectively), and a 3-3 draw with Brazil got the team heading homewards after failing to qualify for the knockout stage. Twelve years later, at Moscow '80, Nigeria bowed l-3 to Kuwait, 0-1 to Colombia and drew l-1 with Czechoslovakia. Seoul '88 produced no better result. The Eagles lost in a straight set to Brazil (0-4), Yugoslavia (1-3) and Australia (O-l), and had to board the next flight home. The run-up to Atlanta '96 was as disas trous as could be with the team suffering a 1-3 bash ing in the hands of lowly-rated Togo in their last warm-up match attheNational Stadium, Lagos. Fans were,infact,rootingforan outrightdisbandment of the team and the nation's withdrawal from the soc cer event to avoid a national embarrassment. An intensive three-week camping exercise in Tallahassee, Florida, however, yielded good results as the team went into the competition, battle-ready. The team started the preliminaries by defeating Hun garyandJapan l-O and 2-0 respectively, beforelos ingbya lonegoalto Brazil. Nigeriashocked Mexico 2-0 inthe quarterfinals; then took a princely revenge against Brazil in a highlydramatic semi-final clash. Nigeriawon4-3intheextratimecourtesyofagolden goalsuperbly struck by the skipper, Nwankwo Kami, in the extra time. In the finals, Argentina slumped 2-3 to the Ni gerian whiz kids, igniting a reverberating celebra tion across the African continent and indeed, the entire world. It was not just a Nigerian victory, all Africans shared the victory and this was vividly demonstrated in Senegal where the team had a stopover on its return from the US, and was treated to a state reception by the Senegalese President. As veritable proof of the incredible talent and abilitiesof thisteam, most ofthe players returned to Europe where they were also treated to a hero's wel come by their club management, coaches and friends. Quite a good number of them capitalized on tee momentousachievement to sign new multi-million dollar contracts, or move on to big clubs after an exchange of fatchequesat signingceremonies. Below are the members of the Dream Team: 1. Dosu Joseph (Goalkeeper) 2. Mobi Oparaku (Defender) 3. Celestine Babayaro (Defender) 4. Sunday Oliseh (Midfielder) 5. Taribo West (Defender) 6. Uche Okechukwu (Defender) 7. Teslim Fatusi (Forward) 8. Wilson Oruma (Midfielder) 9. Nwankwo Kanu (Midfielder) 10. Daniel Amokachi (Forward). 11. Emmanuel Amuneke (Forward) 12. Victor Ikpeba (Forward) 13. Tijani Babangida (Forward) 14. Austin Okocha (Midfielder) 15. Garba Lawal (Midfielder) 16. Kingsley Obiekwu (Defender) 17. Emmanuel Babayaro (Goalkeeper) 18. Abiodun Obafemi (Defender)
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