When it comes to sports, football is unarguably the most popular in Nigeria. It is played anywhere, anytime, anyhow; from tarred streets to grass fields, dusty grounds to muddy and murky pitches, under the sun and in the rain, amateur or professionally, as hobby and as a career. In the history of Nigeria’s sports and athletics, some dates have uniquely colored pins on the calendar. The older generation probably remember some years with both nolstagia and excitement; the much younger generation might probably only relate to some of those dates in historical terms. In this case, the year was 1996. The place? Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America. The Event? Olympics. The category? Male Soccer/Football.
Every category/level of Nigeria’s National football team is named uniquely; The senior male national team is called the Super Eagles, while the senior female national team is referred to as the Super Falcons. The Under-20 team is called the Flying Eagles and the Under-17 team is nicknamed the Golden Eaglets. Starting at the 1996 summer Olympics, every male Under-23 team that has represented Nigeria for the Olympic soccer games has been tagged as a Dream Team.
The Nigerian Under-23 male Soccer team, nicknamed the Dream Team, that represented Nigeria at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America, will always be remembered for their unprecedented remarkable achievement of winning gold at the summer games. They went as underdogs but returned as champions, defeating Mexico, Brazil and Argentina in the Knockout stages and final. The team distinguished itself and made history by becoming the first African and non-European and South American team to win an Olympic gold medal in Soccer.
The Dream Team: The True Nigerian Spirit
Football has been arguably one of Nigeria’s greatest binding forces. It crashes ethnic lines, collapses religious divides, diminishes socio-economic differences and smashes the walls of socio-cultural stratification. Nigeria’s Dream Team exemplified the True Nigeria; Oneness, Unity in Diversity, Team Spirit, Being the Brothers Keeper etc.
This Team of Heroes serve as fuel and reminder for a united Nigeria; what it was, what is has achieved, what it can be, what it can achieve. They represented the ‘WAZOBIA’ mantra and had even the minority tribes thrown into the ring. They exemplified team work, patriotism, creativity, love, hope, keeping faith, optimism etc. Over two decades later, the victories of Nigeria at the Olympics in 1996, with the lens zoomed in to matches against Brazil and Argentina remain fresh in the minds of many Nigerians. It shows how ‘impossible is nothing’; that ‘Davids still take down Goliaths’. The dream team gave the world a glimpse of what Nigeria and Africa have to offer at the global stage and what they can achieve as well.
The Dream Team: A Team of Champions and Heroes
These players rank not just as champions but as National Heroes. Their victory was, and is still regarded as Nigeria’s most notable sporting victory at the international level and one that hasn’t been replicated ever since. Though Nigerians, their victory was not just Nigeria’s; it was for Africa, for every perceived ‘underdog’. The dream team played for Nigeria, but won the hearts of the world, especially the neutrals at the games. The display way spirited, the style was entertaining, the patriotism was contagious and remarkable.
As a way of honour and appreciation, the sqaud players were recognized by the Federal Government and were awarded with the national award of Member of the Order of the Niger (MON). Each player also received a luxury apartment and a plot of land in a new development located in developing parts of Lagos State as well as a monetary reward of one million naira (about 12,500 USD at the time).
It is well more than luck, it is greatly beyond just Magic, it is the Nigerian Spirit; the spirit of the Dream Team. They give us a template and a reminder that Nigeria can Dream, should Dream, must Dream again! Dream of greatness, doing the impossible, conquering the giants, achieving the unimaginable. The Dream team reminds us that a Team has no limits; they remind us what a Team simply means; Together Everybody Achieves More.
The lineup of players that represented Nigeria at Atlanta 1996 is shown below with their Jersey numbers, Playing Positions, Names and Club(Country) they were playing for at that time :
No. Pos. Player Club (Country)
1 GK Emmanuel Babayaro Plateau United (Nigeria)
18 GK Dosu Joseph Julius Berger (Nigeria)
2 DF Celestine Babayaro Anderlecht (Belgium)
3 DF Taribo West Auxerre (France)
5 DF Uche Okechukwu Fenerbahçe (Turkey)
12 DF Abiodun Obafemi Toulouse (France)
16 DF Kingsley Obiekwu Go Ahead Eagles (Netherlands)
17 DF Mobi Oparaku Anderlecht (Belgium)
6 MF Emmanuel Amuneke Sporting CP (Portugal)
7 MF Tijani Babangida Roda (Netherlands)
8 MF Wilson Oruma Lens (France)
9 MF Teslim Fatusi Ferencváros (Hungary)
10 MF Austin Jay-Jay Okocha Eintracht Frankfurt (Germany)
15 MF Sunday Oliseh Köln (Germany)
4 FW Nwankwo Kanu Ajax (Netherlands)
11 FW Victor Ikpeba AS Monaco (France)
13 FW Garba Lawal Espérance (Tunisia)
14 FW Daniel Amokachi Everton (England)
The Under 23 ‘dream team’ was coached by the Dutch football coach and former Midfielder, Johannes Franciscus Bonfrere and was assisted by the Nigerian, Musa Abdullahi.
Featured image source: Connect Nigeria