25 years on, remembering Nigeria’s Atlanta’96 Olympics heroes

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August 3rd 1996 would be etched forever in the memory of African football custodian and even more so for soccer-mad Nigerian fans who celebrated with glee the country and indeed the continent’s historic first soccer gold medal win at the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Prior to the feat of the West Africans at the quadriennial games in Atlanta, African teams had laboured to win any kind of medals dating back to 1920 when Egypt were the first to represent the continent in the Olympic Football Tournament (OFT).

The Pharaohs lost the third-place classification to the then East Germany at the 1964 Games in Tokyo while other notable headlines included that of  Zambia which hammered Italy 4-0 with a famous hat trick for Kalusha Bwalya in one of their preliminary group matches at the1998 Games in Seoul; and there was also a historic Bronze medal for the Black Meteors of Ghana at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics Games.

Four years after Ghana’s feat in Spain, Nigeria went inches further when her national U-23 team, proudly tagged the Dream Team, in reference to the assemblage of some talented players by Dutch coach Jo Bonfrere grabbed the soccer gold medal with aplomb in the USA.

The squad included sextuplets of hulking striker Daniel Amokachi, mercurial midfielder Austin Jay Jay Okocha, defence Trojan Uche Okechukwu, fleet-footed winger Victor Ikpeba, the 1994 African Footballer of the Year Emmanuel Amuneke and pass-master Sunday Oliseh who incidentally were all members of the Super Eagles that remarkably won the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) In Tunisia.

But at the Atlanta’96 Games, the Dream Team beat both Hungary and Japan with an identical 1-0 win but also lost 1 -0 to Brazil in their final preliminary Group D ties to progress to the knockout stages of the Olympic Football Tournament.

However, the Dream Team began to show their sterner stuff from the knockout states and they decimated Mexico (2-0) in the quarter finals; and edged Brazil 4-3 via the ‘golden goal rule’ in the semi-finals.

That game against the South Americans was regarded as the final-before-final and by 78th minute, the peerless Brazilian complete with the like of Ronaldo, Bebeto were leading Nigeria by 3-1. But the West Africans had other ideas as they turned the tide with barely quarter of an hour left of regulation time.

Striker Victor Ikpeba soon struck a lively shot past goalkeeper Dida to reduce the tally to 3-2 and almost in regulation time, Nwankwo Kanu popped the ball up to knee level before drilling it between defenders Aldair and Ronaldo Guira for the equalizer. And in the fourth minute of extra time, Kanu again delivered the ‘golden goal’ to set Nigeria against another South American super power, Argentina for the Gold Medal Match.

Some 25 years down the line, the group of 18 players that did Nigeria proud has since moved in different directions and across many frontiers, CAFOnline.com tracks Nigeria’s 1996 Atlanta heroes.

Emmanuel Babayaro (Goalkeeper; 26 December 1976; Plateau United): He was an unused substitute throughout the tournament after conceding the number one position to his goalkeeping counterpart, Dosu joseph. He ventured into film making upon retirement from active football. Regarded as a man of many parts, Babayaro is based in Kaduna in Northern Nigeria and he has his pies in many soccer-related activities as an administrator and activist. He was elected secretary of the Professional Players Union of Nigeria in 2020.

Celestine Babayaro( Defender; 29 August 1978; Anderlecht): Brother to goalkeeper Emmanuel, the left-back featured in the six games of the Olympic Football Tournament and was captain of the national U-23 team to the Sydney 2000 Olympics. He later teamed up with Chelsea in the English Premier league (EPL) where he also played for Newcastle before retirement from football in 2010. ‘Cele’ as he’s fondly called by admirers, has been out of the spotlight but reportedly based in the UK.

Taribo West (Defender; 26 March 1974; Auxerre): Hard tackling defender who gave the back line needed support with his no-nonsense approach to the game. Blooded by veteran French coach Guy Roux at Auxerre, ‘Pastor Taribo West’ as he’s fondly called was an immediate beneficiary of Nigeria’s success at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Football (OFT) as he was snapped up by Inter Milan where he played alongside Brazilian great Ronaldo da Lima. He later moved to city rivals, AC Milan before crossing over to England. He featured for Derby County and Plymouth Argyle before retiring in 2008. He became a pastor upon retirement from football.

Nwankwo Kanu (Striker; 1 August 1976 ; Ajax): He was captain of the soccer gold-medal winning team and enjoyed wide accolades and sympathies after he was diagnosed of heart disease at Inter Milan soon after the triumph at the Atlanta’96 Olympic Games. Awarded the 1996 African Footballer of the Year, Kanu later moved to Arsenal where he scooped his second AFOY award in 1999. He set up a novel Kanu Heart Foundation (KHF)- philanthropic organisation in aide of children with heart ailment. He retired from international football soon after the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010 and ended his playing career two years later at Portsmouth in the EPL. Regarded as one of the most decorated African players, Kanu has his hands in many pies since his retirement with interest in real state, hospitality business, soccer academy and scouting as well as running his KHF.

Uche Okechukwu (Defender; 27 September 1967; Fenerbahce): One of the three over-age players in the squad, the ‘gentle giant’ as the centre-back was so nicknamed, offered the U-23 team defence solidity in Atlanta. He was also in the Super Eagles that won the 1994 AFCON in Tunisia en route to Nigeria’s maiden FIFA World Cup appearance at USA’94. He quit international football soon after the France 1998 World Cup debacle where Denmark stunned Nigeria with a 4-1 win in the Round of 16. He was active at club level for several years and stopped active football career in 2006 while at Turkish side İstanbulspor. Awarded Turkish citizenship under the name Deniz Uygar, he has since turned his attention to private business from his base in eastern part of Nigeria.

Emmanuel Amuneke (Midfielder; 25 December 1970; Sporting CP): The 1994 African Footballer of the Year was hampered with injury for most pat of the tournament in Atlanta but rose from the bench to score the most important winning goal against Argentina in the Final Match; and was named BBC 1996 African Footballer of the Year. Moved from Sporting Lisbon to Barcelona after the Olympics and later turned out for Albacete in Spain before retirement to coaching 2002.Was an assistant coach when Nigeria won the 2013 U-17 FIFA World Cup in 2013 and was the team’s substantive coach when the country won a record fifth FIFA U-17 World Cup two years later in Chile. He has also managed Al Khartoum Watani in Sudan and Misr Les Makkasa in Egypt. Made headlines by qualifying Tanzania for the AFCON for the first time since their debut in the 1980 edition in Lagos as the Taifa Stars made the list for Egypt 2019.

Tijani Babangida (Midfieder;25 December 1973;Roda): Fast-paced winger who moved to Ajax after the Atanta’96 heroics with Nigeria and had a seven-year spell with the Dutch giants where he won the Eredivisie title once and the KNVB Cup twice. He later played for a clutches of other cubs in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and China before hanging his boots in 2004. He retired to private business and at some point worked as football agent. In 2020, he was voted as President of Professional Players Union of Nigeria.

Wilson Oruma (Midfielder; 30 December 1976; Lens): Played most of his football career in France and finally quit the game after his spell with Greek side, Kavala FC in 2010. In between he won the AFCON Bronze medal twice with the Super Eagles in 2004 and 2006 and star at the France 1998 World Cup. Had a difficult life at retirement as he was reportedly duped in a huge failed oil business. Diagnosed for emotional disorder in 2018 but gradually returning to normalcy.

Austin ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha (Midfielder; 14 August 1973; Eintracht Frankfurt): Moved to Turkish side Fenerbahce after Atlanta’96 Olympics and later played for PSG, Bolton Wanderers Qatar Sorts Cub and Hu City before retirement in 2008. The 1994 AFCON winner was also a runner up with Nigeria in 2000 and was also in the squad that won the Bronze medal in three successive finals between 2002 and 2006. The 2003 and 2004 BBC African Footballer of the Year, retired into private business with interests in hospitality and real estate sectors. He served briefly as chairman of Delta State Football Association and occasionally appears as pundits on an African sports’ terrestrial television channel.

Victor Ikpeba (Striker;12 June 1973 ; AS Monaco): He scored one of the goals in the dramatic 4-3 win against Brazil in the semi-finals but made headlines on his own when he was voted the 1997 African Footballer of the Year. He moved to Dortmund after an exciting six-year spell with Monaco. He also featured for clubs in Spain, Belgium and Qatar before quitting the game in 2005. Upon retirement, the Prince of Monaco as Ikpeba is called by admirers, has literally embraced journalism and religiously serve as a pundit on an African sports’ terrestrial television channel. He was elected last year as the second vice president of the Professional Players Union of Nigeria. 

Abiodun Obafemi (Defender; 25 December 1973): Another fringe payer for the Dream Team in Atlanta, star for cubs in Germany and France before his retirement. He has since veered into the education sector but apart from being a school proprietor, he is also the technical director of Lagos-based Destiny Boys FC and a joint-owner of De light Football Academy in Lagos.

Garba Lawal (Striker; 22 May 1974; Esperance): Registered as a forward for the Olympics Football Tournament but Lawal is a workaholic midfielder with a long professional football career. He left Esperance for Dutch side Roda after the winning the soccer gold medal with the Dream Team. He featured in four   successive African Cup of Nations between 2000 and 2006. Has had stints as coach with local clubs since retirement upon retirement and served as team manager to the nation U-17 team that won silver when Nigeria hosted the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2009.Based in his native Kaduna in northern Nigeria where he has a thriving farming enterprise. He is also serving on the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) technical committee.

Daniel Amokachi (Striker; 30 December 1972; Everton): A fulcrum of the Atlanta’96 Olympics soccer god medal-winning team, The Bull as Amokachi is called by teeming fans is regarded as one of the country’s best strikers ever. He moved to Turkish side Besiktas from Everton soon after the Olympics. After his retirement from football due to a niggling knee injury, he turned to coaching and handed a string of local clubs before serving as an assistant to late coach Stephen Keshi when Nigeria won the AFCON in 2013 and qualified for the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014. A year ago, he was named as special adviser on sports to President Muhammad Buhari and he is currently working in the country’s ministry of youth and sports development.

Sunday Oliseh (Midfielder; 1 September 1974; FC Koln): He was a central figure in the Atlanta’96 Olympics soccer gold medal-winning team. He later played for some top European clubs including Ajax, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund. Scored one of the best goals at the France’98 World Cup for Nigeria with a stunning pile driver behind legendary goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta in the 3-2 win against Spain. He captained the Super Eagles at the 2000 and 2002 AFCON finals but controversially quit international football following a fallout with the country’s sporting authorities in Mali. Holder of UEFA Pro License, Oliseh was named Super Eagles coach in 2015 but quit eight months into the job amid claims of unpaid wages and contract violations. Had a successful campaign with Fortuna Sittard but left in controversial circumstance yet again. A man of many parts, Oliseh is a writer, pundit and consultants with some high profile portfolios. In April, he became the first player of his generation to release his autobiography aptly titled: Audacity to Refuse-Sunday Oliseh-My Story.

Kingsley Obiekwu (Defender;12 November 1974, Go Ahead Eagles) : One of the fringe players in the Dream Team at Atlanta’96, he was also a bit part with the Super Eagles during a short international career. He retired to coaching and has had coaching experience at local sides including Ingas FC of Enugu, FC Ifeanyi Uba and Delta Force of Asaba as well as at Union Sportive Seme Kraké – Beninese football club based in Porto-Novo.

Teslim Fatusi (Midfielder;17 September 1977; Ferencvaros): Was sparingly used in Atlanta by coach Bonfrere. Played for some clubs in Europe and USA before retirement. Now , residing in the US.

Mobi Oparaku (Defender ;1 December 1976; Anderlecht): Hard working defender full of vitality and featured in all the Dream Team’s matches at the Atlanta games. Featured for Anderlecht in Belgium en route to the USA where he played for few cubs including Connecticut Wolves. He returned to Nigeria in 2005 before finally drawing curtain on his football career. He is currently attached to Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) side, Heartland FC of Owerri as team manager.

Dosu Joseph (Goaleeper;19 June 1977; Julius Berger): He was the team’s first choice throughout the Dream Team’s campaign in Atlanta and his impressive performance later saw him signing for Reggiana but never featured for the then Italian Serie A side after he had a near-fatal car accident the night he helps Nigeria secured a ticket to the France 1998 World Cup. Still passionately involved with football and he is the chairman of one of Westerlo soccer academy in Lagos.

By CAF