SPORTS – USA ’94: NIGERIA’S FIRST OUTING AT FIFA WORLD CUP

 

The 1994 FIFA World Cup, the 15th, was held in nine cities across the United States from 17 June to 17 July 1994. The United States was chosen as the host by FIFA on 4 July 1988.

That year’s mundial was the best at the time, with an average attendance of nearly 69,000. The total attendance of nearly 3.6 million for the final tournament remains the highest in World Cup history. Greece, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time. Russia, competing independently for the first time after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, also qualified. The defending champions, West Germany, were united with their East German counterparts, representing the unified Germany for the first time since the 1938 World Cup.

As a result of the strong performances by African teams in 1990, Africa was given three shots for the first time, with Nigeria joining Cameroon and Morocco.

 

FINIDI GEORGE

 

 

With Cameroon’s dramatic run to the quarter-finals, there were high hopes for Africa’s representatives at USA 1994. The continent had three places for the first time.

One of the biggest mysteries going into the tournament, the Super Eagles turned out to be the break-out stars of the bunch, surpassing time. And the Indomitable Lions were there again, still with the evergreen Roger Milla, as well as Morocco, who had become the first African side to reach the second round in 1986, and, finally, newcomers, Nigeria by some way Cameroon and Morocco who claimed only a point between them. By advancing to the second round – where they would be felled by the just-stirring giant that was Italy – the all green-clad Nigerians captured the imagination and kept alive African football’s exciting emergence.

At the opening ceremony at Soldier Field, Chicago, Diana Ross was on hand to ‘do the honours’ but woefully failed to find the net from six yards.

Fortunately, the real players were a little more lethal in front of the target – none more so than Russian Oleg Salenko. He netted a record of five goals in the first-round game against Cameroon. He would finish as the joint winner of the Golden Boot with six alongside Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoichkov.

With FIFA sticking with their questionable qualification system of eliminating only eight teams at the first stage, three teams made it through from Group A – Romania, Switzerland and the hosts.

Colombia had entered the tournament as many people’s dark horses but failed miserably. When Andres Escobar netted a disastrous own goal against USA, he effectively signed his own death warrant. On his return to Colombia, Escobar was shot dead outside a restaurant, supposedly as he had cost local drug barons money in lost bets.

Group D threw up plenty of memories. Gabriel Batistuta netted a hat-trick against whipping boys, Greece but that was not the image to live in the mind. That was to be Diego Maradona’s bizarre antics as the celebrating striker snorted his distorted expression into a TV camera. Days later the world found out he’d taken the banned stimulant, ephedrine and was sent home in disgrace.

 

JAY JAY OKOCHA

 

 

However, it was Nigeria and the net-shaking Daniel Amokachi who topped the table after a surprise defeat by Argentina in their final game against Bulgaria left them in third and with a tough second-round encounter with Romania.

Much the same as every other nation, the Nigerian team made their door into the World Cup in 1994, with their shirts and the configuration was voted as the most delightful in the competition. The Super Eagles travelled to the USA blooming with a golden generation of players, who had, in October 1993, secured Nigeria’s first-ever participation at the finals with a 1-1 draw in Algeria that saw the west Africans top their group on goal difference from Côte d’Ivoire.

Many of the players in Clemens Westerhof’s team were just beginning their careers – like Jay Jay Okocha (20 at the time), Daniel Amokachi (21) Sunday Oliseh (19) and Victor Ikpeba (21). In fact, the only players who had reached their 30th birthday were the present coach, Stephen Keshi and goalkeeper Peter Rufai and Rashidi Yekini, who was considered the oldest in the team.

The players that made up the Nigerian team were:

Defence: Augustine Eguavoen, Benedict Iroha Stephen Keshi, Uche Okechukwu, Chidi Nwonu,

Emeka Ezeugo, Michael Emenalo

Mid-field: Oliha Thompson, Augustine Okocha, Samson Siasia, Sunday Oliseh, Mutiu Adepoju

Forward: Finidi George, Rashidi Yekini, Emmanuel Amunike, Daniel Amokachi, Victor Ikpeba, Efan Ekoku, Uche Okafor,

Goalkeeper: Peter Rufai, Alloysius Agu, Wilfred Agbonavbare

Coach: Clemens Westerhof (NED)

The Super Eagles’ team topped its group which included Argentina, Bulgaria, and Greece. In its first game, Nigeria defeated Bulgaria 3–0, lost to Argentina 1–2, and qualified for the second round after a 2–0 victory over Greece.

 

RASHIDI YEKINI- FIRST GOAL SCORER

 

 

Nigeria’s first ever World Cup match against Bulgaria was arguably Nigeria’s finest moment at the football fiesta. Going into the tournament as African champions, Nigeria took Bulgaria to the cleaners with a swash-buckling performance that made the world stand up and take notice.

A 3-0 pounding of Bulgaria was the end result. Who can forget the late Rashidi Yekini’s opener, Nigeria’s first ever goal at the World Cup and the subsequent celebration that ensued? That match provided Nigeria with perhaps their most memorable FIFA World Cup moment. Till now, one cannot easily forget the late sportsman,  Rashidi Yekini’s ecstatic celebration – arms through the net, tearfully clutching his face – after scoring his country’s first-ever finals goal.

The Super Eagles recovered from a subsequent narrow 2-1 loss to Argentina with a 2-0 win over group whipping boys, Greece to finish top of the table on goal difference and were now poised to pluck the Italians from the vine.

In the second round, Nigeria played Italy and took the lead with a goal from Amunike at the 25th minute. The country was within two minutes of qualifying for the Quarterfinals of the 1994 World Cup in the game against Italy but Roberto Baggio equalized to take the game to extra time. He also scored the eventual winning goal. The game ended 2–1 in favour of the Italians.

With all the intrigues of Italian opera, the Azzurris ‘finally ascended, whereas Nigeria disappeared, victim of inexperience and, perhaps, stage fright.

Italy defeated Nigeria, 2-1, in a game that turned exciting the moment Baggio emerged from a three-match suspension. Baggio scored in the 89th minute to tie the score, then made a penalty kick in the 102nd minute before 54,367 spectators in the tournament’s first overtime match.

It happened so quickly that Nigeria, the African champions, were left reeling, wondering how they had lost. “We had it in our hands,” said Finidi George, a former Nigerian midfielder was quoted saying. “It’s something I’m going to remember the rest of my life.”

Nigeria, first-round winner of Group D, never unleashed its potent offense but took a 1-0 lead in the 26th minute and frustrated Italy until Baggio’s first goal. And until two minutes were left, Nigeria looked like the team Spain would face here in Saturday’s quarterfinals.

That was the result of Emmanuel Amunike’s goal after George had launched a corner kick from the right side, the ball bouncing around in front of the goal. When none of the Italians cleared the ball, Amunike tapped it in.

The goal held up for the longest time and so did Nigeria’s unorthodox play. Not only was Italy trailing, it lost Gianfranco Zola, who was ejected in the 76th minute for arguing with referee Arturo Brizio Carter of Mexico, who also gave out a Cup-record-tying nine yellow cards. That matched the tally in the previous week’s game between Argentina and Bulgaria.

Even as Nigeria led throughout, it was not the Nigerians’ best effort. The Super Eagles were unable to use their blazing speed to throw Italy off stride. It was not a comfortable moment for them when forward Daniel Amokachi suffered an injury and was replaced by midfielder, Mutiu Adepoju in the 35th minute.”When an attacker gets injured, another attacker should come in because of the way we play,” said Rashidi Yekini, the team’s star striker was quoted in an article. “They concentrated on me. It’s very difficult for one attacker to play against four defenders.”

 

SAMSON SIASIA, SCORER OF NIGERIA’S SOLITARY GOAL IN THE 2-1 LOSS AGAINST ARGENTINA, TACKELS DIEGO MARADONA

 

 

But Nigeria could have made it 2-0 had Paolo Maldini been ejected for taking down Yekini as he broke for the goal in the 81st minute. Instead, Maldini was issued a caution, and instead of a penalty kick, Nigeria got Austin Okocha’s free kick, which was saved.

Although finally using its superior skill to launch attack after attack, Italy was no closer to scoring through most of the second half. The Italians had open shots in front of the goal but let the opportunities pass. Right from the start, they tried to unsettle their less experienced Nigerian rivals. Wearing all white instead of their usual blue, they found a few early half-chances, but it was the confident Eagles who struck against the run of play. Finidi George’s whipped-in corner in the 25th minute was deflected by Italian’s Captain Paolo Maldini straight into the path of Emmanuel Amunike. The 23-year-old reacted instinctively in the six-yard box, flicking the ball past the outrushing goalkeeper with the outside of his left boot.

Full of belief, the Eagles of Nigeria defended solidly even without  captain Stephen Keshi, who had been left on the bench by coach Clemens Westerhof, while central midfielders, Jay Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh – aged just 20 and 19 respectively – were strong and supremely comfortable on the ball.

George and Amunike offered Nigeria pace in abundance down the flanks, and the threat of counterattack kept the Europeans off balance for the rest of the first half and into the second. Most of Italy’s threats were coming from set-pieces, the most promising a short corner that worked its way to Dino Baggio at the right post, but goalkeeper Peter Rufai made a spectacular reaction save to his left.

 

EMANNUEL AMUNIKE

 

 

Italy, however, continued to dictate the action as Nigeria retreated into her own half to run out the clock. They were just two minutes away from doing that when Baggio began his march into the history book.

The Italians did not stop trying, and that, as much as anything, resulted in Nigeria’s elimination. Although they trailed throughout, the Italians showed creativity. At the end of the second half, Italy finally scored when Roberto Mussi got the ball in the penalty area from Roberto Donadoni. A quick move down the right fed Roberto Mussi, who did well to carry the ball into the box. He slid it perfectly into the path of Baggio, who forgot his struggles and with his first touch calmly slotted the ball inside the left post from 14 yards out. The ‘Divine Ponytail’ was in full swing, celebrating for the first time in the tournament – just when needed most. Mussi passed sideways to Baggio when defender Sunday Oliseh challenged him, and there was no one there to cover Baggio, who put the shot past goalkeeper Peter Rufai to equalize at the 89th minute.

Then came the overtime, and Italy looked confident for one of the few times in the tournament.

The penalty kick was set up when Baggio played give-and-go with Antonio Benarrivo a few yards from the right side of the goal. Baggio flipped the ball back to Benarrivo, who was tripped in the air by Austin Eguavoen. The penalty kick was awarded as Benarrivo lay sprawled on the grass.

 

AUGUSTINE EGUAVOEN BATTLING FOR POSSESSION WITH ROBERTO BAGGIO DURING THE GAME AGAINST ITALY

 

 

Baggio slowly took three steps toward the ball and when Rufai lurched to his left Baggio shot in the other direction and bounced it in off the post. And that was the end of the game for Nigeria. Tried within the few minutes remaining, they could not do anything.

The USA ‘94 was an open World Cup and it produced surprises.  Romania, with Gheorghe Hagi in his pomp, and Bulgaria, with Hristo Stoichkov pulling the strings, flew the flag for the newly liberated Eastern European nations.

The tournament followed the same pattern as 1990 with 24 teams moving into a knockout stage, which is where Argentina, the United States and the Nigerians went out.

The US did well to reach the last 16 following a 2-1 win over Colombia in Pasadena on June 22. But it was a match remembered now for terrible reasons because it cost the innocent Colombian defender, Andres Escobar his life. He put through his own net in the first half to give the United States the lead and was murdered when he went home the following week because Colombia’s subsequent defeat cost heavy gamblers big money losses.

 

AMOKACHI AND OTHERS CELEBRATING A SCORE

 

 

Argentina’s skipper, Diego Maradona was suspended after testing positive for doping. Argentina lost 3-2 to Romania while Brazil and Italy eventually battled through to the final in Pasadena.

Then, for the first time in World Cup history, the final was decided on a penalty shootout after a goaless draw under a blistering sun. Brazil won 3-2 after the “Divine Ponytail” Baggio, who had been Italy’s hero with six goals, blasted his penalty high over the bar.

Though defeated and unable to get to the quarter finals at the 16th round, USA ’94 remains a tournament that Nigerians could not easily forget. Since that 1994, Nigeria has been to the tournament five times, yet she has not been able to lift the Cup. Believing that the Super Eagles are more experienced in playing universal match, it is hoped that Stephen Keshi’s team of players will no doubt bring the Cup home this time around.

Fly higher Eagles! Complete the journey you started twenty years ago and draw home the Cup with the clutches of your legs.

 

Some of the highlights of the tournament

Goal of the tournament was won by Saeed Owairan in the Saudi Arabia vs. Belgium match: Saeed Owairan certainly deserved it. Setting off from his own half, no-one could have realised the ball would end in the Belgian net. But it did as the midfielder ran from deep in the Saudi half and left defender after defender in his wake before finding the target for a remarkable solo effort.

 

ALLOYSIUS AGU

 

 

Romario was the player of the tournament: Pushed hard by Baggio who would probably have claimed the award if things had worked out differently in the shoot-out, Romario had an outstanding month in the States. Playing at his peak, the small yet sturdy striker was a handful for all defenses as he linked up superbly with strike partner, Bebeto. His pace and tricky footwork baffled many a defender and resulted in him finishing with five goals and a winner’s medal.

The match of the tournament was the Brazil 3 vs. Holland 2 quarter finals: Romania gave an excellent performance to defeat Argentina in the last 16, but in terms of thrills, this game had it all. Undoubtedly involving two of the best teams in the tournament, Brazil led 2-0 before being pegged back to 2-2. But just when the Dutch looked to be writing their own piece of history, came Branco’s late winner. And of course, we had the Brazil ‘baby’ celebration.

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