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Nigeria Strikes Soccer Gold, 3-2

By Athelia Knight
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Aug. 4, 1996; Page A01

ATHENS, Ga., Aug. 3—Nigeria became the first African nation to win a major international soccer competition today, coming from behind twice to defeat Argentina, 3-2, on a goal in the second-to-last minute to claim the Olympic men’s soccer gold medal.

It was the Nigerians’ second comeback victory in as many matches against a South American soccer power. In the semifinals, they upset gold medal favorite Brazil, 4-3, in overtime after trailing, 3-1, in the second half.

They won today as they had throughout the competition—with an exciting, fast-paced attacking style that appealed to American crowds, which turned out in tremendous numbers for the tournament. A sellout of 86,116 saw today’s game at the University of Georgia’s Sanford Stadium, which came on the heels of the U.S.-China women’s final Thursday night that drew 76,481.

"This is not only important for Nigerian football, but for all of football as well," Nigeria Coach Jo Bonfrere said. "Attacking football brings the best results and it’s also a great spectacle for the fans."

Midfielder Emmanuel Amunike, a second-half substitute, gave Nigeria the victory by scoring in the 89th minute. The goal came off a free kick and a mistake by the Argentine defense that left Amunike all alone to shoot from 12 yards as the Argentines appealed to referee Pierluigi Collina for an offside call that would have nullified the goal.

"I think it’s the greatest achievement for Nigerian soccer," Amunike said. "We have been working very hard the past few years to make this possible. And it was possible today and we are very happy about it."

"Argentina is good," Nigerian forward Nwankwo Kanu said. "Nigeria is gold."

The victory represented another step forward on the world soccer scene for Nigeria. The nation has fielded some of the sport’s best youth teams in recent years. And in the 1994 World Cup—soccer’s quadrennial world championship—Nigeria advanced to the second round before losing to eventual tournament runner-up Italy in overtime.

Several players from that team, known as the "Super Green Eagles," were chosen for the Olympic side. On Wednesday, they helped eliminate Brazil, a four-time World Cup champion that was seeking its first Olympic title. Today, they beat Argentina, which has won two World Cups. Amunike and Daniel Amokachi, who scored the tying goal today in the 74th minute, were among Nigeria’s 1994 World Cup veterans.

Today’s crowd included thousands of supporters of Nigeria, including the Nigerian ambassador to the United States, Hassan Adamu, and former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young, the co-chairman of the organizing group for the Atlanta Games. After their victory, the Nigerians took a victory lap around the stadium, stopping in front of a large group of fans who had played instruments, danced and sung during the game. As they trotted around the field, the players carried a banner that read: "Thank you for your support. We love you all. Nigerian Eagles 1996."

Today’s victory came after Nigeria was banned from the next two African Nations Cup tournaments for not defending its title when the event was held in South Africa in January. The team was withdrawn from the tournament by the Nigerian government, which had been in a dispute with the South African government.

Today, Argentina surprised Nigeria with a goal in the second minute. Argentina’s Hernan Crespo made a well-placed crossing pass from the right wing to Claudio Lopez, who paused for an instant and then sent a header into the upper left corner, past goalkeeper Joseph Dosu.

In the 26th minute, a nifty series of passes deep in Argentina’s end resulted in a shot by Amokachi that hit the right post. Moments later, though, Kanu sent a strong pass out of the corner and Celestine Babayaro headed it in off the left post. Babayaro celebrated the goal with a joyful front flip.

But after controlling much of the subsequent play, the Nigerians fell behind, 2-1, five minutes into the second half. Defender Tarbibo West was called for tripping Ariel Ortega in the penalty area, although television replays appeared to indicate that there had been no contact. Crespo converted the ensuing penalty kick.

In the 74th minute, though, Nigeria struck again as Kanu headed the ball onward, and Amokachi tied the game at 2.

"It was a great final and great teams," Argentina Coach Daniel Passarella said. "Any team could have won."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post

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