When Nigeria’s Soccer Dream Team Won Olympic Gold

Why you should care

Because sports has the power to heal a wounded nation.

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It remains one of the most enduring — and unlikely — moments in soccer history. Nigerian star Nwankwo Kanu masterfully spun Brazilian defenders Aldair and Guira as if they were a pair of rookies, beat goalkeeper Dida inside the far post and then triumphantly stormed to the corner of the field and paced in circles as if even he couldn’t believe what had just happened.

Scored in the fourth minute of sudden death, the goal completed an improbable comeback from a 3–1 deficit for Nigeria’s Super Eagles squad against a dominant Brazilian side that featured such international stars as Bebeto, Ronaldo and Rivaldo. The upset sent Nigeria to the gold medal match against Argentina in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic soccer tournament.

Argentina is good. Nigeria is gold.

Nwankwo Kanu, Nigerian soccer player

The goal by team captain Kanu, who had tied the game in the final minute of regulation time, sent fans in attendance into hysterics. Back home in Nigeria 6,000 miles away, locals took to the streets to commemorate what at that moment was the most historic moment in the country’s sporting history. More importantly, the incredible upset of powerhouse Brazil, who entered the tournament as defending World Cup champions, offered Nigerians a momentary reprieve from a brutal and murderous regime that had increasingly isolated the country on the international stage.

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Nigerian players celebrate after their 3-2 victory over Argentina in the men’s final of the 1996 Olympics.

Source Jerome Prevost/Getty

The sports magic continued the following day in front of 86,116 spectators at the University of Georgia’s Sanford Stadium. As they did in the Brazil game, the Super Eagles showed a flair for the dramatic against Argentina. After falling behind 2–1, they tied the match late before Emmanuel Ammunike scored the winner in the second-to-last minute, earning Africa its first Olympic gold medal in soccer. If the 1992 men’s Olympic basketball players gave the United States their Dream Team, this 1996 soccer roster, made up primarily of players ages 22 and under per Olympic rules, did the same for Nigeria. “Argentina is good,” Kanu said after the match. “Nigeria is gold.”

“Nobody thought the Nigerian team was going to win,” says Athelia Knight, the Pulitzer Prize finalist who covered that final game for The Washington Post. “I was on deadline and I had to get to the team to get some quotes, and they were too busy celebrating with Nigerian supporters.”

Back home, where the game was broadcast around midnight local time, Nigerians poured into the streets, erupting in a bash that went on for days. That euphoria was all the more meaningful, considering what the country was going through at that time.

The 1993 election had been won by Moshood Abiola, a popular candidate who enjoyed great support in Nigeria’s southwest region. But just four months after the nation went to the polls, Gen. Sani Abacha seized power in a coup and then proceeded to tighten his stranglehold on Nigeria, suppressing all dissent.

In November 1995, just nine months before Nigeria’s historic soccer win, Abacha sparked international outrage with the arrest and execution of writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa on trumped-up charges that earned the condemnation of leaders around the world. Reporters stopped working out of their offices for fear of being arrested. They slept in different places every night and wrote their copy in their cars so the newspapers got out, according to Walter Carrington, the U.S. ambassador to Nigeria at the time. “Of all [the country’s] military rulers,” says Carrington, “he was probably the most venal and the most dictatorial.”

In a typical move for an autocrat, Abacha tried to use the Olympic win to score political points. He had deployed the same tactic after the Super Eagles advanced to the knockout stage of the 1994 FIFA World Cup, attempting to curry favor with players by offering them houses and money. The effort was widely considered unsuccessful, notes Carrington.

Abacho didn’t fare much better with the Olympic champions, who mostly remained apolitical following their triumph, declining to do anything that might prop up the strongman. Abacho’s long shadow continued to loom over Nigeria until his sudden death in 1998, after which it was rumored that the dictator and his family had looted the country’s coffers to the tune of $3 billion.

Democracy returned to Nigeria with the 1999 election of Olusegun Obasanjo. The Super Eagles have had their ups and downs since 1996, including a 2016 incident in which the team missed its flight to the World Cup in Brazil, reportedly because the government couldn’t pay the company chartering the aircraft.

And yet two decades after Abacho’s death, that remarkable Olympic run still helps Nigerians block terrifying memories of the general’s reign and continues to act as a unifying force. “It was as if people put aside political rancor for a while,” recalls Carrington. “It was a joyful demonstration throughout the country.”

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