While Africa is waiting for the continent’s first FIFA World Cup™ triumph, it is worth remembering a series of historic successes that put the continent on the Olympic Football Tournament map.
FIFA.com remembers two golden and historic tournaments in Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000.
Nigeria’s fairytale success
Captained by the great Nwankwo Kanu, who had recently won the UEFA Champions League with Ajax, Nigeria entered Atlanta 1996 with high hopes and would have appropriately been tagged tournament dark horses.
After all, this generation had been successful at various youth world championships, most notably finishing runners-up at the 1989 World Youth Championship—the talent was clear to see.
Kanu led by example, scoring the lone goal in the Super Eagles’ opening 1-0 victory over Hungary in Group D. Facing a Japan team on a high from stunning Brazil 1-0, Nigeria scored two late goals – capped off by the wickedly skilful Jay-Jay Okocha.
A fresh-faced Ronaldo led Brazil to a 1-0 win over Nigeria in the group’s final game but Jo Bonfrere’s Super Eagles sealed a first-ever qualification to the knockout stage thanks to goal difference.
In the quarter-final against Mexico, Okocha and Celestine Babayaro were the heroes in a match that saw both teams reduced to ten men. Just six days after Nigeria faced Brazil in the group stage, Bebeto and Co stood in the way of the final.
Ronaldo had scored four goals in four games and Nigeria went down 3-1 by half-time. Victor Ikpeba gave Nigeria a lifeline in the 78th minute before Kanu took over. The gangly forward leveled matters in the 90th minute before finding the golden goal four minutes into extra time for the Super Eagles to seal a 4-3 win.
Perhaps it was destiny. Another South American giant challenged Nigeria in the final, but even Argentina’s 2-1 lead thanks to Hernan Crespo’s spot kick wasn’t enough. Daniel Amokachi’s beautiful chipped finish in the 74th minute was followed by Emmanuel Amunike’s (pictured top) left-footed volley in the final minute that broke Argentina’s offside trap and proved to be the strike that made history. His team-mate Sunday Oliseh summed up the emotions so eloquently.
“I guarantee you that as I talk to you now, everyone in Africa is celebrating. There is no sleeping tonight. Everyone will be happy. This is for all the African countries.”
Inspired Cameroon give Africa more pride
At Sydney 2000, Nigeria were tipped to repeat as title winners, but Cameroon wanted to make history of their own. Coach Jean-Paul Akono combined youth and experience perfectly. This was when Samuel Eto’o introduced himself to the world.
Like Nigeria in 1996, the Indomitable Lions’ group stage campaign was not all plain sailing. They started with a rocky 3-2 win over Kuwait which was followed by draws with the Czech Republic and the USA.
The parallels with Nigeria’s 1996 run continued. Akono’s charges got past Brazil in the knockout stage thanks to a golden goal; this time Modeste M’bami was the hero. In the semi-final against Chile, Patrick Mboma (84′) and Lauren Etame Mayer (89′) sent Cameroon to the final.
In front of a whopping 104,098 fans at Stadium Australia in Sydney, Spain and Cameroon treated the watching world to an instant classic. Despite going down 2-0 at the break, the lions really proved to be indomitable. Ivan Amaya’s own goal provided a way back in and it was Eto’o who equalised. Even with Spain having two players sent off in the second half, the game had to be decided on penalties. Cameroon were faultless and Amaya hit the upright to make it back-to-back, top-of-the-podium finishes for Africa at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament.
Did you know?
No African nation has won the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament since Nigeria in 1996 and Cameroon in 2000. Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt and South Africa will represent the continent at Tokyo 2020. Will one of those nations be able to add a gold to the continent’s name?