FOXBORO, MASS., JUNE 25 -- For a moment, it looked like a changing of the guard would take place today. Upstart Nigeria was out to prove to perennial contender Argentina that African soccer had finally arrived on the world stage.
After a quick goal by Nigeria, that scenario looked to be unfolding, but two-time World Cup champion Argentina showed it hasn't lost its touch. With star midfielder Diego Maradona pulling the strings and speedy striker Claudio Caniggia tallying two goals, Argentina fought back and created enough scoring opportunities to earn a decisive 2-1 victory today before a sellout crowd at Foxboro Stadium.
"All of Argentina should be proud of this team's heart," a euphoric Maradona said. "Despite Nigeria's goal and rough play, we were able to turn the game around."
The match began with a flurry. In the third minute, Oscar Ruggeri sent a dribbler almost across the Nigerian goal line, but no Argentine attacker was able to push it in. A minute later, Ruggeri headed a Maradona corner kick and a defender rejected the ball on the goal line when Nigerian goalie Peter Rufai had been beaten. It didn't take long for Nigeria to respond. The Super Green Eagles took the lead in the eighth minute on their first deep attack -- a beautiful give-and-go between Rashidi Yekini and Samson Siasia that Siasia finished with a chip shot over goalie Luis Islas's head. Argentina roared back in a desperate attack, sending defensive midfielders Diego Simeone and Fernando Redondo forward on charge after charge. Nigeria tried to stop Argentina by all means necessary, but Swedish referee Bo Karlsson called a strict game, whistling Nigeria for 33 fouls against Argentina's five.
"The referee made use of the fair play rule and I commend him for that," Argentine Coach Alfio Basile said. Nigerian Coach Clemens Westerhof saw it very differently. "Maybe far back in his past, the referee was related to Maradona, but I'm not sure," he said.
Argentina tied on the 22nd minute off a free kick. Maradona touched to Batistuta, who sent a rocket toward goal that Rufai could not handle cleanly, and Caniggia poached the rebound into the net.
Argentina continued its relentless attack, and created two opportunities that Abel Balbo rushed. But the South Americans were rewarded in the 28th minute with a second goal on another brilliant assist from Maradona, who caught the Nigerian defense sleeping and set up Caniggia off a free kick. Alone in the penalty area, Caniggia took his time before curling a shot off Rufai's far post.
In the second half, Argentina tried to freeze the game and wait for Nigeria to come out, but Nigeria wouldn't bite. The game lost rhythm and scoring opportunities became more sparse.
Nevertheless, Argentina managed to create at least a half-dozen clear chances, several of them generated by Maradona's inspired left foot. Rufai was outstanding, stopping Redondo and Batistuta cannon shots from inside five yards.
On the other end, Yekini lived up to his billing as one of the strongest -- and most dangerous -- forwards in the world, but despite manhandling Ruggeri on several plays, today he lacked his famous finishing touch.
Seven minutes before the end, Yekini found himself alone against Islas on the right side, but the Argentine goalie came up with a big save. It was Nigeria's last chance.
"I played with confidence but in football you learn something every day, more when you lose," Yekini said. "We learned today because we played against a world champion for the first time in a World Cup."