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Nigeria’s soccer Super Eagles take flight

Nigeria at 60

Nigeria’s soccer Super Eagles take flight

Over the years, Nigeria’s national football team – the Super Eagles – have given Nigerians plenty of reasons to rejoice. Michael Renouf looks fondly back on their triumphs 

Nigeria first won international silverware in 1980, which was also the first time they hosted the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). They defeated Algeria 3-0 in the final, a natural progression after finishing in the bronze medal position in the 1976 and 1978 tournaments.

The latter bronze was achieved in bizarre fashion when, with the game tied at 1-1, Tunisia walked off the pitch in protest against the officiating, which they felt was favouring Nigeria, who were subsequently awarded the game 2-0.

Fourteen years later they stood atop of the podium again thanks to a 2-1 victory over Zambia. It was quite a story for the Copper Bullets (Chipolopolo) to even be in the final as less than a year earlier their team had been decimated by an air crash in Gabon that killed all on board.

Zambia took an early lead before Emmanuel Amunike scored twice to ruin the fairytale ending. This was the second tournament in a row that Nigeria’s Rashid Yekini topped the individual scoring charts. Yekini, as well as being the country’s all-time leading goal scorer, is unsurprisingly their top scorer at AFCON with 13 goals, which places him third pn the all-time scoring list, behind Laurent Pokou (Côte d’Ivoire) and Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon).

This victory laid the foundations for their first-ever appearance in the World Cup finals – the 1994 tournament held in America – which saw the Super Eagles take to the biggest stage of all with aplomb.

They opened up with a superb 3-0 victory against Bulgaria, which seemed even more impressive a few weeks later when the Eastern Europeans reached the semi-finals. Their first-ever goal scorer? Yekini of course, with a strike from within the six-yard box, which gave rise to his unforgettable, emotional celebration whilst clutching the goal netting.

Next – Argentina, and despite taking an early lead thanks to a superb early goal from Samson Siasia, they succumbed to the South American powerhouses 2-1 in the irrepressible Diego Maradona’s last international. They then faced Greece and a 95th-minute strike meant they won the group by the slimmest of margins, on goal difference.

In the round of 16 they would face one of world football’s superpowers, Italy. Could they reach the quarter-finals? The Super Eagles went into the break with a 1-0 lead and belief was only strengthened when Italy’s Zola was sent off in the 75th minute.

With barely a couple of minutes left to play, Robert Baggio broke through for the Italians and then the ‘Divine Ponytail’ sent Nigeria home with a penalty in extra time, to break the hearts of a nation.

The Italians would go on to reach the final where Baggio blazed his spot-kick over the bar in the shoot-out to hand Brazil the title. I can only imagine how many cries of “Why didn’t he do that against us” echoed across the bars of the land.

A dark turn

The decade that was looking so promising for the Super Eagles took a dark turn when they withdrew from AFCON 1996 (for non-footballing reasons) and were subsequently banned from the next edition.

In between these events, at the 1996 Olympics, their under-23s captured gold (since the 1992 Games, entry has been limited to under-23s).

However, they were back for a second crack at the World Cup in France ’98. Their opening game was against Spain and yet again they came from behind, on this occasion twice to win by the odd goal in five.

A 1-0 victory over previous victims Bulgaria was followed by a 3-1 defeat to Paraguay with the group already won. In the round-of-16 game they could not produce another comeback after falling behind and were easily dispatched 4-1 by Denmark.

In the 2000 AFCON, when they shared hosting duties with Ghana, they finished runners-up – losing a penalty shoot-out to Cameroon. They placed third in four of the next five tournaments.

They qualified for their third successive World Cup in 2002, but produced their worst showing to date, finishing bottom of their group, picking up a solitary point in a 0-0 draw with England.

It was 2010 before they made it back to the finals in South Africa – the first one to be hosted on African soil. Unfortunately, only one of the record six combatants from the continent would make it beyond the group stages and it would not be Nigeria who, in an equally poor showing again, finished bottom of their group – going home with just one point – although it could have been so different if Yakuba had not missed a ‘you have to see it to believe it’ open goal versus South Korea.

Three years later, the same country hosted AFCON. Nigeria finished as runners-up to Burkina Faso on goal difference in their group meaning they would face Côte d’Ivoire in the quarter-finals, who they managed to overcome by a 2-1 scoreline.

In the semis they blitzed Mali 4-1 to set up a final with Burkina Faso who had held them to a draw in the group stages. Thanks to a Sunday Mba strike shortly before the interval they claimed the title for the third time.

Argentine nemesis

In 2014 they headed to the World Cup finals in Brazil. They drew 0-0 with Iran then bettered Bosnia and Herzegovina 1-0. In their third group game, who was waiting? None other than Argentina. The teams exchanged goals in the opening five minutes in a game that La Albiceleste won 3-2, but Nigeria were through to the knockout stages for a third time – a record for an African nation. The game was notable for Ahmed Musa scoring both goals for Nigeria, the first time a player from the country had scored a brace at the finals.

In the first knockout round they held out against France until the final few minutes when they conceded twice, and the dream was over for another four years.

2018 saw them back for a sixth crack at the World Cup (from Africa, only Cameroon have more appearances, with seven). They lost to Croatia 2-0 and beat Iceland by the same score thanks to another Musa double – the first an absolute cracker, with the second not far behind it, which not only made him the solitary Nigerian player to score at two World Cups but also the country’s leading scorer in the finals.

In the last group game, they inevitably faced Argentina, losing 2-1, a result that meant they were on the plane home. This was the fifth time in six tournaments that they had faced Argentina – surely if countries could twin, these two would have done it by now.

In 2019 they again finished third in the AFCON. Although three nations – Egypt (7), Cameroon (5) and Ghana (4) – have more titles, if you count the top three places, they are the most successful with 15.

Read more from our Nigeria at 60 special report

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