The Butterfly Effect: Kanu and Nigeria at the 1996 Olympics

There was a minute left. With each passing second, Nigeria’s Olympic dream faded.

3–2 down against a Brazil side that should already have put the game to bed, they won a throw-in in a seemingly innocuous area of the opposition half. What followed next is inextricably linked with the legend of Nwankwo Kanu, the start of a remarkable career that was the stuff of highlight reels, playground worship, and stunned commentators.

Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha picked up the ball to take the throw-in. With the seconds ticking away, the only option was a long, hopeful punt towards the penalty area – the last roll of the dice. And Okocha, more than most, had reason to give it everything, with the thought of his missed penalty at 3–1 still ringing in his head.

There’s nothing stylish about a long throw, football’s most agricultural weapon. It feels slightly incongruous to the rest of Okocha’s storied career as an entertainer, but at that point artistry was no longer enough. So he took the throw-in and launched it forward like a cruise missile. Jay Jay Okocha slung one up to the big lads in the box.

The throw arced into Brazil’s danger area. Wilson Oruma mistimed his jump, but he had done enough to put off Ze Elias, Brazil’s defensive midfielder. Teslim Fatusi was also distracted by Oruma’s misjudgement, but somehow he steadied himself. He killed the ball dead with his first touch, but made a meal of the easy part.

Fatusi’s stabbed pass to find Kanu was poor – in the end it was barely a toe poke – forcing the forward, who had been obscuring the goalkeeper Dida’s view, to adjust as he brought the ball under his spell. Kanu did what he would do countless times in the years that followed, impudently scooping the ball up in the air. Dida went to ground as Kanu spun around and fired home. 3-3: Game On.

Four minutes into extra time, Kanu finished off the Brazilians with his second of the night. This time his strike was much more conventional, but nonetheless equally as sumptuous.

Another raking long ball was sent towards Brazil’s box, hitting substitute Victor Ikpeba in the back and ricocheting towards Kanu. The gangly striker latched onto it, sold a dummy that took Aldair and Ronaldo Guira out of the equation, and let fly with his size 15 past Dida.

1996 was the era of black boots, all 22 players eschewing the aberration of coloured footwear, but Kanu sparkled in pure technicolor.

Brazil had just conceded three goals in 16 minutes and, in the post-match interrogation, the manager Mario Zagallo faced a barrage of hostile questions, including the most stinging: “Why are there no good defenders in modern Brazilian teams?”

Nigeria would go on to defeat Argentina 3-2 in the final to become the first African football team to win gold at the Olympic games. The match was played one day before Kanu’s 20th birthday.

***
When I was in Year Eight of secondary school, my art teacher repeatedly drummed into our impressionable young minds that ‘every mistake in art is a design’. At no point did this make sense to me and my classmates.

We reached a consensus that this was just a way for the teacher to justify his lack of skill as a painter; that really there is mistake in art, and his misplaced brushstrokes proved exactly that.

But after watching Kanu’s equaliser against Brazil an unhealthy number of times, my teacher’s favourite cliché started to ring true. What may seem a mistake at first is really just part of the bigger picture slowly taking shape without us noticing.

Consider for one moment how that goal came about. Oruma’s mistimed jump meant Fatusi couldn’t generate enough power on his shot to trouble Dida. Perhaps if Oruma had connected his header would have missed; how close was Fatusi to slicing the ball wide. It was the imperfection that led to Kanu’s moment of brilliance.

A talent such as Kanu’s would surely have announced itself at some stage. By all indication he was heading for a prominent career, helping Louis van Gaal’s Ajax side win the Champions League the previous year. But it was that game against Brazil that truly heralded his arrival on the international stage.

While the story of Kanu’s heroic performance is told again and again, no one remembers Fatusi and Oruma. And yet, in their own inept contributions, they were part of something much bigger. In those few seconds of desperation, two poor touches became part of a grand plan for the greatest story in Nigeria’s football history.

If you believed in divinity and the idea of a predestined path, this was your moment of confirmation.

***

“This means everything to Nigeria,” Okocha said in the aftermath of the game. “Football is the one thing in Nigeria that brings us together. For the people back in my country, this may be the happiest day of their lives.”

Okocha was right – the victory meant everything to Nigeria. But the Olympics represented a rare moment of joy for the country to celebrate in 1996.

At the time Nigeria was under the rule of General Sani Abacha, a ruthless despot who killed anyone who dared to question or criticise his government. In November 1995, Abacha ordered the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight associates for allegedly plotting the murder of a group of local chiefs at a pro-government meeting.

Saro-Wiwa was a writer and prominent anti-government activist who challenged the government’s failure to prevent environmental degradation through oil drilling in the South South region. He led a non-violent organisation that protested against Abacha’s cosy relationship with the oil companies, who were responsible for spillage that ruined the lives of local farmers and fishermen.

Saro-Wiwa’s murder sparked international outrage, with the Commonwealth – receiving the backing from South African president Nelson Mandela – suspending Nigeria for three years. Mandela called for a boycott of Nigerian oil in the wake of the killings, delivering the key votes of the African bloc to determine the sanctions.

With South Africa hosting the Africa Cup of Nations in 1996, Abacha decided to pull Nigeria’s Super Eagles out of the competition. Officially, he said that he feared for the safety of the Nigerian players, but for anyone following global politics in the months leading up to the tournament, it was clear it was Abacha’s pathetic attempt to get back at Mandela.

Donald G. McNeil Jr., writing in the New York Times on the eve of the Africa Cup of Nations, reported that “the South African Government and soccer officials say Nigeria acted in bad faith by announcing its withdrawal late, and they accused Abacha of intimidating Guinea, a small west African country subsequently invited to take Nigeria’s place, into declining the invitation.” It’s often said that politics and sport don’t mix, but this was an example of how the two are often inextricably linked.  

The Confederation of African Football naturally took a dim view of Nigeria’s actions, banning them from the 1998 tournament held in Burkina Faso. But the discontent wasn’t limited to the authorities; some members of the national team also voiced their frustration. “It’s so painful,” said Austin Eguavoen, the team captain. “But we are in support of the federal government.” In a country where dissent was punishable by death, his diplomacy was necessary.

The Nigerian people, however, were less subtle in their protests. In Lagos, the country’s commercial nerve centre, police protected the sports ministry from a crowd of angry fans. The Super Eagles were the best team on the continent by some distance, winning the Africa Cup of Nations in 1994 and wowing the world at the World Cup later that year. This was the best crop of players in Nigeria’s history, and here was the unelected military leader denying the supporters the opportunity to watch them.

Olympic football normally ranks pretty low on the list of priorities for football fans, but the government’s meddling meant many Nigerians turned their attention to the 1996 games held in Atlanta. The Olympic ‘Dream Team’ took on extra significance, with the whole nation living every pass, every shot and every tackle. The decisions of Dutch manager, Bonfrere Jo, impacted on the lives of millions back home.

My watching brief as a two-year-old was restricted to family members joyfully throwing me into the air as Kanu equalised and then won the game in extra time. Growing up, there was a videotape of the match in my house. My brother and I would watch it together on our old video cassette player, which became the enduring memory of my childhood.

Watching it back 20 years later on a YouTube video with Chinese commentary, it was clear how much the victory had meant to Nigerians. Because of the time difference, the game was played around midnight in Nigeria. But as my brother told me, that didn’t stop entire households emptying out onto the streets after the semi-final – with strangers hugging and young men cheering loudly, setting off fireworks and celebrating into the early hours.

Sport is easily dismissed as entertainment, but moments like these reveal its power to bring people together – its role as a unifying force in the middle of political turmoil. This was a triumph against some of the best footballing nations in the world – and, perhaps more significantly, it was a victory against the tyrannical government that had tried its best to derail the ambitions of its own football team.

When Okocha said it was the best day in the lives of many of his compatriots, he knew what he was talking about.

***

“All we are saying, give us one goal,” sang the Nigerian Supporters’ Club squeezed in among the rafters at the Sanford Stadium. In the end, they got three more than they bargained for, including the brace that announced Kanu’s greatness.

For the most part, Kanu was on the fringes of the game, unable to exert his cool influence. But with one scoop of the ball and a swing of his boot, we were on Kanu’s watch, invited to catch a glimpse of football royalty right before our eyes.

Nicknamed ‘Papilo’, the butterfly, Kanu’s brilliance elevated him to the pantheon of Nigerian legends in a matter of minutes. For me personally, he’s the hero who made me believe in the impossible.

Despite his failures with the national team in the years that followed (he failed to score at either of the two World Cups he played in), Kanu undoubtedly remains the greatest footballer Nigeria has ever had. After Atlanta, he didn’t win any major honours with the Super Eagles, scoring only 12 times in 87 caps. And yet.

He remains the poster boy for footballing elegance, remaining calm in the heat of battle and conjuring up moments of magic when all seems lost. It all began at the Sanford Stadium in Atlanta, in blazing sunshine at the end of July 1996.

He had the weight of a nation resting on his slender frame; a piece of string wrapped in green baize, a gold chain around his neck, and millions watching back home. Including me: a little child destined to celebrate that match forever.

This is an extract from Mundial Magazine Issue 007. Subscribe here and buy lovely things from their shop.

The Butterfly Effect: Kanu and Nigeria at the 1996 Olympics
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