The 2016 Olympic football tournament in Brazil bears special significance for the Nigeria Olympic football team.
It marks 20 years since the original “Dream Team” — containing the likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Taribo West, Jay-Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh — stunned the world, stirred the African continent and enthralled the entire nation by winning Olympic gold.
It was a victory steeped in redemption, achieved by a squad populated in large part by players who were full senior internationals — the majority of whom had won the 1994 African Nations Cup (ANC) for only the second time in Nigeria’s history, then bedazzled at the World Cup in the USA a few months later.
But they would be denied a chance to defend their ANC title because of political tensions between Nigeria’s then military regime and hosts South Africa’s emerging democracy.That dispute meant the team were pulled out of the ANC in 1996, and were subsequently handed a two-tournament ban by Confederation of African Football (CAF.)
The Olympics thus provided an outlet for a squad widely acknowledged as Africa’s undisputed best at the time; one that was as rugged and unyielding as they were talented and sleek.
With the rules relaxed to allow three overage players among the Under-23 squad, as many as 12 of the 18 players in 1996 were already full internationals, mostly with Nations Cup and World Cup experience, not to mention high level club exposure in Europe.
Despite that glut of talent and experience, the squad were ushered off to the Atlanta Games on a wave of pessimism after a 3-1 loss to Togo. But that defeat appeared to be the catalyst which sparked their success.
Still, Nigeria did it the hard way, finishing second in a tight group that contained favourites Brazil, Japan, and past winners Hungary. Nigeria, Brazil and Japan finished level on six points after they all won two games and lost one, but the Asian side’s goal difference of zero saw them eliminated.
Nigeria then breezed past Mexico 2-0 in what would be their ‘easiest’ game of the tournament with goals from Okocha and Celestine Babayaro in Birmingham.
The next two games saw great players turn to legends. Down 3-1 in the semifinals against a Brazil side packed full of talents like Ronaldo and Bebeto, Nigeria came back to win 4-3 with a late goal from Kanu sending the game to extra time before the new Inter Milan striker struck again for a Golden Goal.
Using that momentum, Nigeria came from behind again (2-1 this time) vs. an equally outstanding Argentina side — which contained the likes of Javier Zanetti and Hernan Crespo — in the final to claim gold. Current U17 boss Emmanuel Amunike netting the winner in the final minute to send the Nigerian fans into raptures and cement the squad’s place in history.
Looking at the Class of 2016, there aren’t that many parallels between the two sides as they were drawn in Group B alongside Sweden, Colombia and Japan.
For starters, less than half of the 2016 squad are full, regular internationals. And, of them, only captain and Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel can boast a level of exposure to match (perhaps even exceed) that of the 1996 players. The rest who are travelling to Rio this summer have a lot less experience.
One thing the two squads do have in common is a lack of expectations heading into the tournament, albeit for different reasons. There was no doubt about the talent of the Class of ’96; the only concern was whether they could reach their potential, especially after their early friendly setback.
But for the Class of 2016, some of the most talented players requested by coach Samson Siasia (including Watford’s Odion Ighalo, Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi) have not been released by their European clubs. Their replacements are not of the same quality, with particularly worrying concerns about the forward line, which is usually touted as one strength of Siasia’s teams.
Of the selected strikers, Al-Arabi’s Imoh Ezekiel may have potential but has not been in exactly prolific form and has spent the last two years on loan; Sadiq Umar is also unproven despite being signed on a permanent basis by Roma this summer.
Elsewhere, there are grudging elements of solidity. Kenneth Omeruo, Shehu Abdullahi, Stanley Amuzie, Kingsley Madu and William Troost-Ekong are all senior, in-form internationals, and in midfield, Azubuike Okechukwu and Oghenekaro Etebo will benefit from the experience of Mikel.
But exacerbating matters off the field is the country’s economic crunch which has seen the Nigerian FA unable to provide as they should for the team. Even Siasia was has said recently that he is owed five months’ wages.
Friendly matches in the build up to the Olympics have been well short of encouraging either — a 1-0 win over Mali and 3-1 defeat to Luxembourg — but the competition is a different beast for Nigerian football.
Nigeria also finished runners-up at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, under coach Siasia, and he will lead the 2016 version to Rio with the weight of history behind them.
Colin Udoh is the editor of KickOffNigeria.com and African football correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ColinUdoh.