Atlanta ´96: The Summer of Great Dreams

When Emmanuel Amunike scored the winner against Argentina on that early August 4 morning 25 years ago, it led to an unprecedented wave of optimism in our country. I was young, would turn 16 just two weeks later, but I understood the political heaviness in the air.

General Sani Abacha was in the third year of his infamous reign and had stifled all opposition voices. In Ondo State where I lived with my mother, Governor Onyearugbulem was doing the bidding of his master by chastising the venerable old democrat, Adekunle Ajasin and his NADECO group. Nigeria was in the grips of a draconian regime, and we saw no way out of it.

I was writing my final WAEC exams when Kudirat Abiola, the wife of Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola, winner of the annulled 1993 presidential elections, was assassinated one sad day in June. The year before, Ken Saro Wiwa and the Ogoni nine had been executed by the Abacha government for daring to stand up against the oil companies exploiting the Niger Delta. The resulting international condemnations and embargoes on Nigeria had led Abacha’s government to withdraw the Super Eagles from defending their Africa Cup of Nations title at South Africa ´96. And so, we were denied an opportunity to see our golden generation that January.

But we did qualify for the Olympic Games men’s football event, and it was some consolation. Our boys started with a 1-0 win against Hungary before beating Japan 2-0 and falling 1-0 to Brazil in the third group game. Having watched the footages of the competition over and over these last 25 years, it is easy to reel out the numbers. But it is difficult to recapture the emotions of that period. It was one heck of a time to be alive. With every game came new emotions. We lived on hope, hope for a good game, hope for a win.

No African team had won Olympic football gold before so it was difficult to describe what it could mean for us. Yet, despite all the issues facing us as a country at the time, our boys trudged on and confronted all their opponents with the hope of a victory in mind.

 

A barber’s apprentice

That August, I had begun an apprenticeship at a barbershop near my home in the Oluwatuyi Quarters of Akure, the Ondo State capital. Every day, I would resume at Big Choice Barbers to learn how to cut hair after my father bought me a clipper. I had recently finished secondary school and awaited my WAEC result. It was at Big Choice that I experienced that summer as a young teen. Customers would come in bearing the day’s newspapers. The discussions would go on and on about the Dream Team’s football performance in faraway Atlanta.

I followed the discussions without saying a word as my oga cut the hair of the patrons. We would clean up afterwards. And if a customer left behind their Complete Sports newspaper, I would read through before time came to welcome a new customer. And as the team progressed, the more intense the discussions grew inside the shop.

As we reached the semifinals to once again face Brazil and its stars, it seemed like the end of the road. They had the best young player in the world at the time, the exciting Ronaldo as well as Bebeto and a host of stars from their 1994 FIFA World Cup winning team. We knew Brazil had never won the Olympic title and they were very eager to add it to their illustrious trophy cabinet.

And when it came game time, the Brazilians raced into a 3-1 lead at halftime. We gave up all hope of winning. My uncle and his pregnant wife lived with us at the time. As we began to fight our way back into the game, he told her to calm her nerves in order not to hurt their unborn child. Such was the pressure.

When Nwankwo Kanu scored the equalizer to send the game into extra time, we couldn’t hold our nerves. And then his big golden goal winner sent us into an unlikely final. That night all over Nigeria was one like no other. In Akure, we jumped into the streets and sang our voices hoarse.

At the barbershop the next day, more men came around and talked and talked and talked. Football joy was in the air and we could not hear enough. The newspapers sold out. They were filled with praise for the team. But we still had one last hurdle in Argentina.

 

Taking down Argentina

We lost to Argentina in the group stage at the 1994 World Cup in the USA and so had fresh memories about their prowess. Diego Maradona had played his last game against Nigeria before failing a drugs test that drew a curtain on his genius but flawed career. There was palpable fear that Argentina could truncate our title hopes.

But you must realise that we were a very confident team in that period. Nigeria had won a second African title two years before and reached the Round of 16 at the World Cup in the same year. Our players were playing in Europe with big teams and so we didn’t go in as so much as underdogs or an unknown team. On the contrary, it was the Argentines that needed to worry. We were back for vengeance.

And so, we took the game to them even though they scored first, we drew level to finish the first half 1-1. When they scored to take a 2-1 lead in the second half, we drew level again and then Amunike’s winner came late in the game. After the final whistle, our country erupted into rapturous joy. It was a feeling that I still cannot put words on. Our neighbours all rushed out of their homes, and we sang and danced. Across Akure, young men and women were on the streets just like us in jubilation.

 

A time to dream

At the barbershop the next day, patrons talked football all day. I finally bought my first football magazine and collected the stickers of all the players of the team. And then I had my hair cut in the crew cut style of Kanu, my hero. In Kanu I saw my dreams as a young Nigerian teenager able to come true.

A few days later, my uncle’s wife delivered a beautiful baby girl. She got married earlier this year. Years later I visited Brazil to report the World Cup and found out the impact of that Olympic loss on that country’s psyche. General Abacha died two years later and we returned to democratic rule shortly after.

That summer 25 years ago, we were young and dreamed of great things for our country. Though we faced adversity both on the pitch and off, we overcame them. We might not have won another Olympic football gold medal, but we will always tell the story of when we ruled the world.

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