Classic Match: Nigeria 4-3 Brazil (July 31, 1996)
June 15, 2010. The FIFA World Cup in South Africa was four days old, when Brazil trudged on to the pitch, kicking off their campaign against minnows North Korea in Johannesburg. A 2-1 win, thanks to a blinder from Maicon, saw off the North Koreans, but the general agreement, from the people who sat next to me watching on television, throughout the game, was how Brazil weren’t quite like Brazil.
For a few sitting and watching La Selacao struggle to break down the Asians, it was a time to reminisce about the Brazil of old, the Brazil of staggering quality, and, almost customary for Nigerians, the Brazil side we’d beaten at the Olympic football semi-final in 1996, in Atlanta. The famous game, after which, according to many, people back home drank to stupor, and kept on drinking on euphoric celebration. The game, after which brought the famous song ‘when Nigeria beat Brazil, Bebeto come dey cry’.
Growing up, Brazil were – at least sold to us as – the benchmark in football, a star-studded side that slayed all before them. They were the team that struck fear into the hearts of opponents, at any level. Beating the South Americans was a monumental achievement, hence the mass delirium in 1996.
The Dream Team’s success over Brazil 23 years ago was celebrated not just because it came against the mighty Brazil, although that was a huge factor – especially considering they’d beaten Nigeria in the group stage earlier in that tournament and were 3-1 up in this last-four clash. It was also because it took us to the final of the Olympic football tournament (which we won). A tournament we’d entered in the most Nigerian fashion, amidst strife.
Nigerian successes – especially in sports – almost happen despite the furore surrounding the team, federation, and country altogether, and it was no different ahead of 1996 Olympics. The Dream Team had laboured past Kenya and Egypt in qualifying rounds, but even that was secondary. What dominated the start of the 1996 was what happened in 1995.
In November of the previous year, military Head of State Sani Abacha had ordered the execution of steadfast activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, much to the disapproval and distaste of many, including South African president Nelson Mandela, who asked for Nigeria to be suspended from the upcoming Commonwealth games. That suspension led to the fury of Abacha, who banned Nigeria from participating in the 1996 African Cup of Nations. The Eagles were the defending champions, having triumphed in Tunisia in 1994, but wouldn’t be able to defend their title in South Africa, an outcome that made many storm the Sports Ministry, in Lagos, in incandescence.
Nigeria were seen as, at least, a growing force in world football, voted the most entertaining team at the World Cup in the United States in 1994, despite going out to Italy in the last 16. ‘We had a team that could match any in the world’, Taribo West told BBC in 2016. But this talented team was going to North America two years after in chaos. Not only was the Saro-Wiwa issue dominating headlines, there were financial setbacks in the side – the players had to pay for transportation to go train – while coach Bonfrere Jo – who had reportedly resigned and then was persuaded to return – was supposedly facing the sack. There was also the issue of how Nigeria wouldn’t get their shirts laundered because of fears over HIV/AIDS.
On the pitch, Nigeria needed a Kanu goal before halftime to beat Hungary in their first game, in Orlando. But Brazil had a worse start, suffering a shock defeat to Japan in Miami. Mario Zagallo’s team bounced back to beat Hungary in their second game, while Nigeria required two late goals to see off Japan, which meant Jo’s side’s last group game against the South Americans was basically a dead rubber. Brazil won it, in Miami, thanks to Ronaldo (then Ronaldinho), to finish top of the group.
That meant Brazil would face Ghana in the quarters, whom they saw off thanks to Ronaldo double. Nigeria, meanwhile, had a date with Mexico. A rasping shot from Jay-Jay Okocha after 20 minutes, and a late Celestine Babayaro goal did for the Mexicans, sending the Dream Team to the semis.
And so to July 31, 1996, the rematch between both teams. Nigeria were a tough side, but had undoubtedly gone through most of the previous four games without real conviction. So, one may well have feared the worst when Brazil scored with barely a minute played. Brazil won a free-kick just outside the box, with Emmanuel Amuneke tripping Bebeto. Flavio Conceicao ran up to it. Brazil midfielder Ze Elias was beside the Nigerian wall, close to a standing Taribo West. Surely the goal owed as much to Ze Elias as anything else, as the midfielder moved away the moment Conceicao’s foot hit the ball, creating a gap. The free-kick deflected off West’s foot, and past goalkeeper Joseph Dosu, who must have seen the ball late.
It was the worst start for Nigeria, yet in the first 20 minutes of the game, the Dream Team had managed four attempts at goal, while Brazil’s only effort was the goal. But an equaliser didn’t come from a shot on goal, rather from some industry by Mobi Oparaku. A part of the winning team at Under-17 World Championship in Japan, Oparaku would only make eight appearances for the senior team, as he found opportunities limited.
But in this game in Athens, Georgia, he was the force behind Nigeria levelling matters, as he brushed off Conceicao, made an exchange with Daniel Amokachi, before pinging a diagonal to fellow full-back Celestine Babayaro. A few step-overs later, Babayaro’s ball across the six-yard box would be diverted by Roberto Carlos into his own net. Babayaro somersaulted as the Nigerian bench got up in celebration, but parity would only last eight minutes.
Goalkeeper Dosu gave an interview, to Complete Sports’ Tunde Koiki, in 2016, about the game against the Brazil and the tournament as a whole. But one area Dosu didn’t talk about was Brazil’s second goal. Perhaps he felt he did enough, but many could point out – without being overly cynical – that he should have done better, as Ronaldo broke through defence and shot at him. Dosu’s save was neither convincing nor effective, and the loose ball fell to Bebeto, who couldn’t miss from a close distance.
Moments before that, though, Nigeria could have gone in front, Tijani Babangida firing a shot wide what was an admittedly quite narrow angle. But it all looked done and dusted seven minutes before halftime, Bebeto lobbed a pass towards Juninho Paulista, who produced a delightful chest pass to Conceicao, and the latter dinked one over Dosu for his brace. As the Brazil players slid on the turf in celebration, it looked over. This was a 3-1 deficit against Brazil. ‘…we lost all hope in the semi-final, especially as we quickly went down’, said journalist Biola Kazeem to The Guardian three years ago.
At halftime, the Nigerian dressing room was, inevitably, far from amicable. ‘We knew that in the first half of that game, we were very poor’, said West (also to the BBC). According to Dosu, Jo spoke of switching to a three-man defence during the interval, and with Oparaku coming off for Wilson Oruma, it looked that way. ‘I said to myself even when we were four, they scored three’, said Dosu. ‘…and now the coach is turning the defence to three, then Brazil will kill us’.
Dosu noted that Jo’s switch was aimed at bolstering the midfield, making Oruma a bit more advanced and Garba Lawal sitting deep. And it was from Lawal that Nigeria’s second goal originated, as he robbed Rivaldo of possession in the middle off the pitch, before driving on to find Amokachi. Amokachi found Victor Ikpeba, whose one-time shot rolled past a standing Dida and halved the deficit.
Nigeria were within a goal of Brazil, but there were just 12 minutes left, and before Ikpeba’s goal, Okocha had missed from 12 yards, a stuttering run-up led to a poor penalty midway through the second period. But Brazil had gotten cautious, Zagallo taking off both Ronaldo and Juninho, while a desperate Amaral had hurried back onto the pitch despite getting stretchered off it. And the South Americans’ newfound fears came to be in the final minute of normal time.
A cross was sent to Amokachi on the edge of the box. Every other time, he would have taken that ball under his spell, but with hindsight, it’s probably a blessing in disguise that he fumbled the control. A bad touch took him wide, and his subsequent pass was bundled out for a throw-in, as the clock was at 89:11.
Okocha took a long throw, and the ball fell to Teslim Fatusi. Fatusi took three touches, one of which was a desperate pass cum weak shot, as two defenders closed in on him. But the ball fell to Kanu, who somehow managed to flick the ball up and fire past a fallen Dida and a desperate Ze Maria on the goal-line, almost with the same touch. Nigeria were level, and we’d be heading for extra time, but the euphoria and joy wouldn’t end there.
Only four minutes had gone out of 30 in extra time, when Oruma lifted a pass for a running Ikpeba. Again, fortune would come from inaccuracy, as Ikpeba ran ahead and lost track of the ball, which hit his back and dropped loose. Or rather, it dropped for Kanu, who took out two Brazilian defenders with one touch, found the bottom corner with another. ‘I was the defenders’ backs were turned’, said the goal-scorer. ‘So I dribbled through them and shot’.
Then came that famous celebration near the corner flag; from the cusp of heartbreak, Nigeria had pulled off a miracle, and would be heading for the final. Not that all of the team knew it, though. ‘I saw Okocha pull off his shirt and throw it to the fans, and I asked him why, as we were still playing’, said Dosu. ‘Okocha called me a fool; that we had won via golden goal, but I asked him what that meant’.
According to the Los Angeles Times, it meant horror for Brazil, as it described it as the South Americans experiencing their worst 16 minutes of football. For Juninho, still seething after his substitution, it was definitely painful. ‘We came here to win the gold’, he said afterwards. ‘And now we can only win bronze. For Brazil, that’s not a big deal’.
For Nigeria, it was a battle to win gold, and that was a huge deal. They’d seen off Brazil, but they weren’t done. Another South American – and the chance at immortality – lay ahead.
Kunle Ajao121 Posts
Kunle Ajao is a football writer and columnist for spotkick. Having made a toss of himself trying to actually play the game, he knew better and got a pen instead of boots. Spends a bit of his time with the game, and thinks he's a bit like Sid Lowe. He's not