Uniting a Nation: The untold story of how Kanu and co. upstaged the favourites in ’96 against the odds

Aanu Adeoye
10 min readJun 30, 2017

In 1996 Nigeria’s Olympic football team won the gold medal event of the Atlanta Games against a backdrop of political uncertainty back home…

Osvaldo Casanova for Mundial Magazine

Only one minute of regulation time remained, and with each passing second, Nigeria’s Olympics dream faded. 3–2 down against a Brazil side that should have put the game to bed earlier, Nigeria won a throw-in in a seemingly innocuous area of the Brazilian half. What followed next is inextricably linked with the legend of Nwankwo Kanu, the start of a remarkable career that was the stuff of highlight reels and stunned commentators.

Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha picked up the ball to take the throw-in; with seconds left, the only logical option was a long, hopeful punt towards the penalty area; the last roll of the dice, the last chance at redemption. And he, more than most, had cause to be hopeful: his penalty miss at 3–1 would have been a major talking point had Kanu not happened.

There’s no rhyme or reason, no method to the madness of the long throw. It’s a hopeful punt, an agricultural roll of the dice when artistry simply would not suffice. It feels slightly incongruous to the rest of Okocha’s storied career as an entertainer, but at that point, artistry alone would never have sufficed, and so he took the throw-in, sticking up to the big lads.

Okocha’s agricultural effort found its way to the Brazil danger area, Wilson Oruma mistimed his jump, missed the flight of the ball, but he had done enough to put off Ze Elias, the Brazilian defensive midfielder. Teslim Fatusi was almost put off by Oruma’s mistake, too, but somehow he steadied himself, killed the ball dead with a touch so silky the greatest footballers would have approved and then made a meal of the easy part: the pass to find Kanu was poor, in the end it was barely a toe-poke and Kanu, who until now was obscuring the goalkeeper Dida’s view had to bring a difficult ball under control. So, he did what he would later do countless times in the years that followed; impudently, he scooped the ball up. Dida opted to commit at Kanu’s feet — a grave mistake — and missed, the gangly forward spun and fired home. 3–3, game on.

Four minutes into extra time, Kanu finished off the Brazilians with his second of the night. This was a more conventional, but equally sumptuous finish. A raking, long ball was sent towards the Brazil area, it hit the substitute Victor Ikpeba in the back and ricocheted towards Kanu; he latched unto the ball, sold a dummy that took Aldair and Ronaldo Guira out of the equation, before letting fly past Dida with his left foot. This was the era of the golden goal, when coloured boots were an aberration, and all 22 players were clad in black boots.

Nigeria progressed to the final where they would defeat Brazil’s South America’s rivals Argentina 3–2 to become the first African side to win gold at the football event of the Olympics. The final was played a day before Kanu’s 20th birthday.

Brazil had just conceded three goals in 16 minutes, and in the post-match interrogation, their manager Mario Zagallo faced a torrent of hostile questions, including the most stinging.

“Why are there no good defenders on modern Brazilian teams?”

When I was in Year Two of junior secondary school, my arts teacher repeatedly drummed into our supposedly impressionable young minds that ‘every mistake in art is a design.’ At no point did this make any sense to my classmates and I, and so despite our youth, we reached a consensus that this was just a way for our arts teacher to justify his inadequacies as a painter; that there really was mistake in art, and that his misplaced brushstrokes that extended further than planned were errors, and not design, as he continually told us.

But after watching Kanu’s equaliser an unhealthy number of times, my arts teacher’s favourite cliché seemed to make sense. My arts teacher may have been an unremarkable artist, but surely he was unto something: there really isn’t mistake in art; it’s all just a part of the bigger picture forming right in front of our eyes without us even noticing.

Consider for one moment how that goal came about: Okocha’s long throw, Oruma’s mistimed jump that meant Fatusi couldn’t generate enough power on his shot to trouble the Brazil goalkeeper. Perhaps if Oruma had connected perfectly, the header would have gone wide; Fatusi might have shot straight at Dida had he generated enough power on his shot. But, football, like my teacher stressed at all times, was art; imperfection is allowed.

Perhaps Kanu would have announced himself at a later date; by all indications he was headed for a fairly respectable career as a footballer anyway, after all he was an 18-year-old member of Louis van Gaal’s Champions League winning Ajax squad in 1995.

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No one remembers Fatusi and Oruma now when the story of Kanu’s greatness is told, yet in their own inept ways, they were a part of something much bigger than themselves.

For a few seconds, two consecutive poor touches from two different players felt not like poor touches, but part of a flawed if ultimately successful move in a master plan being implemented in real time by a bearded puppet master enjoying the view from up above. If you believed in divinity and the idea that our lives are all part of a pre-destined grand plan, this was your moment of confirmation that the old man upstairs had a decent plan all along.

“This means everything to Nigeria,” Okocha said in the aftermath of the game. “Football is the one thing in Nigeria that brings us together. For the people back in my country, this may be the happiest day of their lives.”

Okocha was right; the victory meant everything to Nigeria. Both teams met in the group stage with a Ronaldo De Lima goal securing victory for Brazil, and going into the game, a side containing many of the stars that won the World Cup two years earlier were heavily tipped to progress to the final.

Beyond happenings on the pitch, though, the Olympic represented perhaps the only positive thing about Nigeria in 1996.

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The country was under the despotic regime of General Sani Abacha who ruled with an iron fist and killed anyone who dared to question or criticise his government.

It came to a head in November 1995 when the Abacha government ordered the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight associates for allegedly masterminding the gruesome murder of some local chiefs at a pro-government meeting. Saro-Wiwa was a writer and prominent anti-government activist who criticized the government for failing to regulate the environmental degradation caused by the several multinational companies drilling oil in the oil-rich South South region. Saro-Wiwa led a non-violent organisation that protested against the government’s cosy relationship with the companies that caused oil spillage and therefore ruined the livelihoods of many in the region who were fishermen or subsistence farmers.

Saro-Wiwa’s murder sparked international outrage, and the Commonwealth, with a major backing from the then-South Africa president Nelson Mandela suspended Nigeria from the union for three years. Mandela had repeatedly called for a boycott of Nigeria’s oil in the wake of the killings, and then crucially, he delivered the key votes of the African bloc which nailed Nigeria’s suspension.

With Mandela’s South Africa hosting the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996, Abacha decided to pull Nigeria’s Super Eagles out of the competition. Officially, Abacha stated he feared for the safety of the Nigerian players, but for anyone who had followed global politics over the past months, it was simply Abacha’s playground-like way of getting back at Mandela.

Donald G. McNeil Jr., writing in the New York Times on the eve of the tournament in 1996, reported, “the South African Government and soccer officials say Nigeria acted in bad faith by announcing its withdrawal late, and they accused Abacha of intimidating Guinea, a small west African country subsequently invited to take Nigeria’s place, into declining the invitation.”

If you needed further testament to the complex web of interaction between sports and politics intertwined and tangled like a badly-stored ball of wool, this was mindlowing evidence.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF), naturally, took a dim view of Nigeria’s actions, with the governing body banning Nigeria from the 1998 edition held in Burkina Faso. But the discontent wasn’t limited to the authorities; Nigerians and some members of the national team were annoyed by the government’s actions.

“It’s so painful,” Austin Eguavoen, the team captain, said, before quickly adding, “but we are in support of the federal government.” In a country where open dissent was punishable by death, his stance was understandable yet diplomatic enough.

Nigerians, however, were less subtle in their protests. In Lagos, the commercial nerve centre of the country, police were required to protect the sports ministry from a crowd of unhappy fans. The Super Eagles were the best team on the continent by some distance, winning the competition two years previously and stunning the world with their football at the World Cup in the same year. This was the best crop of players in the country’s history, and here was the unelected military leader denying the fans the opportunity to watch the nation’s most popular sport at a time fraught with uncertainty all because of a silly ego trip.

Olympics football ranks low on the list of priorities of even the staunchest football fans, but the government’s meddling meant many Nigerians turned their attention to the games holding in Atlanta. The Olympics team, dubbed the ‘Dream Team’ as a result, took on extra responsibility. A whole nation lived through every kick and pass of a group of 23 men; Dutch manager Bonfrere Jo’s decisions affected the lives of millions of people.

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My watching brief as a 2-year-old in 1996 was restricted to family members joyfully throwing me into the air as Kanu equalised and then later won the game. Growing up, though, there was a video tape of the game in my house; my brother and I watched it numerous times on our old video cassette player. It became the enduring memory of my childhood.

Watching twenty years later on a YouTube video with Chinese commentary, and during the research for this story, it was evident that this victory meant a lot to many Nigerians. The time difference meant the game was played around midnight Nigerian time, but that was no deterrent for entire households to empty unto the streets in the aftermath of the Brazil game, my brother told me, as strangers hugged and young men cheered loudly, setting off bonfires and celebrating well into the night. Sport is easily dismissed as entertainment — which it really is — but it is moments like these that reveal sport’s power to bring people together, a force that united a people in the middle of political turmoil. This was a triumph against some of the best footballing nations in the world, but perhaps more significantly, it was victory against the odds, against a tyrannical government that did its damnedest to derail the ambitions of its own footballers.

When Okocha said it was possibly the best day of the lives of many of his compatriots, he knew what he was talking about.

“All we are saying, give us one goal,” sang the Nigerian Supporters’ Club packed in a vertiginous area of the stadium. In the end, they got three more than they bargained for, including two that kick-started the greatness of Kanu.

For the most part Kanu was on the fringes of the game, unable to exert influence on proceedings. But with one scoop of the ball and a swing of his boot, we were on Kanu-time, invited to catch a glimpse of football royalty right before our eyes.

Nicknamed ‘Papilo’ — the butterfly — Kanu’s brilliance, in a matter of minutes, elevated him from good to great, writing his name into the folklore of the most populous black nation on earth.

For me, personally, Kanu was a hero — and still is. Watching Kanu made me believe in the impossible, and Martin Tyler on commentary duty for Kanu’s hat-trick at Stamford Bridge in 1999 could also hardly believe his eyes.

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Kanu, undoubtedly is the greatest Nigerian to ever kick a football, despite his subsequent failures with the national team in the years that followed — he played in 6 Afcon tournaments (2000–2010) and 2 World Cups, yet Kanu failed to register a single goal in either competition: a damning indictment for a player of his calibre. Needless to say he did not win any major honours with the Super Eagles and scored only 12 times in 87 caps.

Still, Kanu remains the poster boy for footballing elegance, with the ability to remain calm in the heat of battle, and conjure up moments of magic when all seems lost. It all began at the Sanford Stadium in Atlanta, in blazing sunshine, on a warm day at the end of the July. He had the weight of a nation resting on his slender frame that looked like string wrapped in green baize, a gold chain around his neck, and millions watching back home. Including me, a little child destined to gorge forever on the tape of his glorious coming out party.

*This essay was first published in Issue 7 of Mundial Magazine, a quarterly football lifestyle magazine in love with the travel, the fans, the kits, the boots, the world, and the people surrounding the game. Buy the latest issue.

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Aanu Adeoye

Journalist with bylines in your favourite publications.