by Adedayo Ademuwagun
20 years ago, Nigeria played against Italy in the second round of the USA ’94 World Cup. That game is one of the most memorable games in Nigerian football history.
Nigeria was participating in the World Cup for the first time then and the squad was in top form. They had won the Nations Cup earlier that year in impressive fashion, so the morale was high and the squad was pretty popular back home. Nigerians had high expectations of Coach Clemence Westerhof and his boys, and the team did get some fine results.
For starters, they thrashed Bulgaria 3-0 in their first game and bounced back from a narrow defeat to Argentina to beat Greece and qualify for the second round on top of the group. Italy, on the other hand, virtually limped out of their group with four points. Now, they had to get the African champions out of the way in order to take a shot at winning the World Cup as a lot of people had predicted. This game was going to be a showdown.
Charles watched the game on TV that July in Lagos. He says today, “Actually, the only thing on my mind that day was that Nigeria would destroy Italy and bring home the trophy. I was so confident in the team because we had good players and the team was very strong. Everyone was very optimistic. We didn’t see ourselves as mere underdogs in this game. We were so sure that the Italians were on their way out. That was the spirit.”
54,000 people turned up at the Foxboro stadium in Massachusetts that windy Tuesday afternoon to watch the match. The stadium was packed.
It was the Europeans who dominated early in the game and got the first couple of scoring opportunities, but it was the Africans who hit the net first in the 25th minute through 23-year old Emmanuel Amunike, and Lagos went wild with jubilation. The Azurris were clearly stunned.
“I remember watching this game with my brothers and parents and all our neighbours,” Patricia says. “Someone brought out their TV and the rest of us brought out chairs from our flats and we all gathered. When Amuneke scored, there was lot of screaming. It was like one big party. Everyone was cheering loudly.”
Italy pressed forward and pushed for an equaliser before half time, but the defence was strong even without skipper Stephen Keshi. Young J.J. Okocha and Sunday Oliseh also held up well in the midfield, while Rashidi Yekini slugged it out up front with the Italian defenders. The first half ended with Italy trailing.
The Eagles continued to soak up the pressure in the second half and fought hard to resist the attacking Italians. The Nigerian fans were under a lot of tension.
“The game was nerve-racking!” says Azeez. “I kept hoping we’d somehow withstand the pressure and finish the game with our lead. But I think the referee was unfair. He called a lot of free kicks against us and let [Roberto] Baggio and the rest threaten from the set pieces. We could have had a penalty at the second half, at least the one where Maldini fouled Yekini, but the ref didn’t make the right call.”
Italy had a man sent off in the 76th minute, and it looked like the Nigerians had this one in the bag and were on course to meet Spain in the quarterfinal, but the Italians continued to push for an equaliser.
Finally, just when the Eagles were stroking the ball around thinking this one was over, the breakthrough came for Italy. Two minutes to go, Roberto Mussi collected a pass from the midfield and ran towards the Nigerian box. Then he passed the ball to Baggio, who tucked the ball past Peter Rufai and right into the net. The ‘Divine Ponytail’ hadn’t got a single goal in his name in the tournament before this time. But after this he went on to score the winner in extra time. By then, the Eagles were disoriented. The Italians were going to Los Angeles for the quarterfinals, but the Nigerians were going to Lagos. Their American Dream was finished.
Even though Nigeria crashed out in the second round, the world noticed the team’s remarkable performance and that year FIFA ranked Nigeria fifth in the world on account of their outing in America. It was a fine case of Africa Rising, and it looked like the beginning of a very productive era for the Eagles.
Charles says, “With the way the boys played in that World Cup, I could have sworn that by now, Nigeria would have won two World Cups. It was that spectacular.”
Fast forward to 20 years later. Nigeria hasn’t gone anywhere near a World Cup trophy or even accomplished any better than it did in 1994. It’s like Nigerian football nosedived after the World Cup. As the Nigerians got on the plane to Lagos after that competition, Westerhof got on another plane to Amsterdam. He quit. After him, the Eagles have had 19 coaches in 20 years but only one trophy to flaunt in as many years.
Like in 1994, the Eagles are currently the African champions again. But this time, there is no déjà vu.