By Chibuogwu Nnadiegbulam, AIPS Young Reporter, Nigeria
ABUJA, June 6, 2018 – On that fateful damp Saturday, Sunday Oliseh struck like a thunderbolt. His half volley redefined power and precision as it floated over 25 yards to sting a highly-rated Spain in shocking fashion at the Stade de la Beaujoire, Nantes. Veteran goalkeeper, Andoni Zubizarreta, was beaten all ends up by the fierce drive that ultimately decided La Roja’s 98 World Cup fate. That classic goal on June 13, 1998 remains one of Nigeria’s most memorable and celebrated.
Sunday Oliseh – It means even more for the goal scorer in particular. In an interview with FIFA TV in 2014, Oliseh said: “Not just because of the goal but because of what it represented for us as a team and me personally as a human being. Because prior to this game the preparations for us were very bad; we lost every friendly game and there was so much doubt.” “I had a discussion with Bora Milutinovic in his room and I told him ‘it’s one of the first times that I don’t really feel very solid’ and he said ‘it is not important what the occasion is, it’s important how you use the occasion and what you do with the occasion.’ Then I went into my room, went to bed and the next training I noticed I was really, really full of strength.”
Spanish favoritism – Spain were outright favourites to top group D, which also included Bulgaria and Paraguay. The European giants qualified unbeaten for the tournament, but also paraded Fernando Hierro and Raul, Real Madrid players that were still basking in European glory having just won the Champions League. Nigeria were the underdogs going into the game.
All square at half-time – Very few gave Nigeria a chance to successfully scale this first hurdle and by the 21st minute Spain expectedly took the lead from just outside the area through their free-kick specialist and then record scorer, Hierro.Mutiu Adepoju headed in a Garba Lawal corner in the 24th minute to restore parity for the Super Eagles and both teams shared the spoils at the break.
Oliseh winner – Two minutes into the second half Spain had cause to celebrate again as Hierro found Raul with a long ball and the latter easily dispatched it into Peter Rufai’s net. La Roja was still riding on that momentum when the infamous Zubizarreta own goal happened. Lawal with the assist. To conclude the thriller, Oliseh then served spectators a screamer that silenced the Spanish fans. Spain failed to recover in time from the defeat and were home bound after the group stages. Meanwhile Nigeria progressed to the knockout round as group leaders.
Bonus row – At this point, fans of the Super Eagles now harboured high expectations for the coach Milutinovic-led side. However, bonus row reared its ugly head prior to their second round match against Denmark. Oliseh told Al Jazeera: “We wasted too much energy on the eve of our game haggling over bonus, something like that should not be the focus at a big tournament like the World Cup.” The Super Eagles – who were the only African team left in the tournament – eventually suffered an emphatic 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Denmark. “We lost that game off the pitch and not on the pitch,” Oliseh explained.
Moving forward – Ahead of Russia 2018, the Nigeria Football Federation has done well to attract sponsorships to the Super Eagles brand such that the team is financially equipped for what is at stake. The Gernot Rohr tutored side had an impressive qualifying campaign that saw them book their place in Russia – at the expense of Algeria, Cameroon and Zambia – with a game to spare, thereby restoring fans’ belief. Nigeria’s World Cup jerseys sold out on the same day they were was launched, June 1. Three million pre-orders had come in prior to the official launch.
Mixed preparations – There have been mixed fortunes for the team in international friendlies having accumulated two wins, two losses and a draw since their qualification with coach Rohr saying they ‘still have a lot of work to do’ after their 2-1 loss to England on Saturday. However their 4-2 comeback victory over a Messi-less Argentina last year remains ever fresh and NFF President, Amaju Pinnick has insisted that “Nigeria can win the World Cup”.
Final friendly – The Super Eagles play the Czech Republic today (June 6) in their final warm-up before heading to Russia where they will be making their sixth appearance at the global showpiece but have never gone beyond the second round.They will face Croatia, Iceland and Argentina in Group D with their opening game against Croatia coming up on June 16.