Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Arsenal Joga Bonito Wednesday: Genesis Edition

No, not Abacab.

Genesis, as in, how I came to be a big fan of The Super Eagles of Nigeria, Kanu, and Arsenal.

In early 1996 as an enterprising young lad who was trying to get into grad school to pursue a Masters Degree in Sports Management, I decided to volunteer for ACOG, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, in the Athens office, which was right on campus in the Tate center. I went by the office a few times a week and helped out wherever I could. I parlayed this into a paying job for the summer, working logistics for the Athens site, where among other things we converted Sanford Stadium into a proper soccer stadium, Stegeman colisuem held volleyball & rhythmic gymnastics, and the UGA Athletic dorm was converted into the village for housing athletes. I was able to score the Sanford stadium gig as my home base, and when the medal round soccer finally came my various job duties and my "infinity" badge allowed me some serious behind the scenes access, interview room, locker rooms, press box, suites, field, etc, etc. In short, it was an amazing experience.

Anyhow, the 4 men's teams were Brasil, Argentina, Portugal, and Nigeria {in the Olympic tournament teams field their Under 23 team but are allowed 3 players of any age over 23}. Brasil were massive favorites with Argentina close behind, and Nigeria seen as the rank outsiders. Most all of the workers on staff quickly became fans of Nigeria, mainly because unlike the other three, who mostly acted like prima donnas, the Nigerian players were very down to earth, humble, approachable, and nice. Always friendly, happy, and smiling- it was obvious that they were really enjoying the experience. Same for their fans, who were all so nice, full of joy, and down to earth. Through one of my job duties I got to spend some time with the Nigerian players, especially Taribo West, he of the crazy hair, and they were all very nice and friendly. Though my job required a neutrality and professionalism, internally I was pulling hard for Nigeria to succeed.

So in the semifinals Nigeria faced Brasil, and although the Super Eagles were a talented young bunch, many who had won the FIFA Under 17 World Championships in 1993 and some who played on the successful 1994 World Cup team that won its group and went out to an Italian golden goal in the round of 16, they were pretty big underdogs. Like many international tournaments, it was simply assumed that Brasil would walk away the winners. Looking back there was a ton of young talent on the field that day: Dida, Roberto Carlos, Bebeto, Rivaldo, and a young 20 year old by the name of Ronaldo, who then went by Ronaldinho because there was another older Ronaldo on the squad, for Brasil. Nigeria had the core of what would be a golden generation of players including Celestine Babayaro, Jay Jay Okocha, Taribo West, Daniel Amokachi, and young Kanu.

The match started out as expected, with Brasil scoring in the first minute, and before halftime they were ahead 3-1. It was a great match, with Brasil showing it's expected brilliance but Nigeria played with joy and flair and energy, and the crowd got behind them for the way they played and that they were against the odds underdogs.

They won a penalty in the 2nd half, giving them a bit of hope, but when it was saved the situation looked pretty dire. Then in the 78th minute Victor Ikpeba pulled one back and made it 3-2, setting up an exciting last few minutes. And then 18 year old Kanu got the equalizer in added time, completing a last gasp comeback and dramatically sending the match into sudden death overtime.

Five minutes into extra time, Kanu capitalized on a ball that fell to him outside the box, shifted to his left foot, and rocketed the golden goal game winner that slayed the Brasilian dragon and sent Nigeria into the Gold Medal Match. For not the first or last time in his career, his goal celebration was wacky as hell, and included some sort of interpretive dance and pat-myself-on-the-back move. Great stuff.

Nigeria 4-3 Brasil, between the hedges

In the Gold Medal Match Nigeria faced powerhouse Argentina, and were again heavy underdogs. After Hernan Crespo's 3rd goal of the medal rounds they found themselves down 2-1 in the second half, and came from behind again to win 3-2 with the winning goal coming in stoppage time. This was especially significant for not only Nigeria but all of Africa, for it marked the first time that any African nation had won a international tournament above the youth level.

Brasil, after pounding Portugal 5-0 in the Bronze medal match, immediately flew home which meant that they no-showed for the medal ceremony after the gold medal match the following day. Pretty bush league, and the word was that they were so pissed and embarrassed that they had lost that they just wanted to get the fuck out of dodge and go home.

Even in victory the Nigerian players and fans alike were friendly, gracious, humble, and generally cool as shit. We had to quickly set up the medal stands on the field immediately after the match, and just like with the US Women's team 2 days earlier, it was cool as hell getting to be down on the field as they celebrated and received their medals in front of a sold out Sanford Stadium. And West even hooked me up with his practice jersey, signed it, and a few of his teammates did the same.

An amazing experience that instantly made Nigeria my favorite international team. Perhaps that will change years from now when all of those guys are long retired, but today it's 11 years later and they are still my squad. And Kanu was the hero so I obviously liked him, and after his heart problem after that which required surgery and some said he would never play again, when Arsene Wenger took a chance and signed him from Inter Milan in 1999, well that is how I became an Arsenal supporter.


beast in 'bama said...

I remember watching that game - not that big of a fan of the game back then - but I remember the joy of the Nigerians (both on the pitch and in the stands) to this day. A big upset like that always stays with you.

Off topic but funny as hell...Be looking for highlights of the Finland vs. Belgium ECQ game played today (recently?). Saw it today when I went home for lunch. In the first half the game was delayed about 7 minutes by the biggest damned owl I've ever seen.

This thing started circling the stadium (Olympic in Helsinki) kind of like the War Eagle at Jordan-Hare, then landed right in the middle of the action and just SAT there, looking around, not moving anything but his massive head.

The referee stops the game, and for the next 6-7 minutes the crowd goes wild (for Finns)as this owl flies back and forth between the goals, perching on the crossbar at each end of the field at least two, probably three times.

Finally he got tired of all the attention and flew away - drawing a standing ovation from the crowd. Very cool.

As they are wont to do, Fox Soccer Channel will probably replay this game tonight, so see if you can catch it. The game wasn't half bad, either.

Kanu said...

Nice dude, thanks. Was already planning on checking FSWR tonight to see highlights, I'm sure it will be on there.

Anonymous said...

It didn't really fly away in the end so much as decide to perch on a post or something that was just outside the field of play and just behind one of the TV cameras. So basically, the owl surveyed the match from the field level, then tried the goal-cam for a bit, and then finally decided that TV-camera level gave the best view.

In other words, the owl was like Roman at Stamford Bridge. Heck, this is Finland, for all we know, the owl probably did own the place.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I should say something about this match too.

I watched this match as live as possible. Since it was "only" the semis, a match that Brazil was expected to win easy, and soccer in 1996 no less. I think NBC only switched to the match after Nigeria made it 3-2. Nevertheless, great stuff. I was convinced that Nigeria would, well, at least get to the semis in 98 and win a WC soon. Seriously, those attacking talents looked unstoppable at times (and they did at times in 98 as well). Shame they could never find any consistency. Also they have a rather... dubious reputation of playing to... interesting results on final days of group matches.

Anyways, this also came on the news today, apparently RM is going after Robben:

I can see some sense in it, since RM will be needing wingers after Becks, Reyes, and Cassano leave. But I'm not sold on Robben, he never felt consistent to me, nor is he a very good team player (from last World Cup), quite expensive, not to mention he dives too much. But hopefully he'll do better at RM than at Chelsea. What do you think? I assume anything that "weakens" Chelsea is good in your book?

Kanu said...


I think Robben is great. In the past few years, he is the one dude on Chelsea that I really fear, and they play so much better when he is on the field, as they lack width and pace without him.

I think there is kind of a shortage of players like him out there at the moment, wingers with pace and skill that run at defenders and wreak havoc. CR7 this year for ManUtd was a great example, ever dangerous, and Robben is a similar player. I think more than anything this type of player is what Arsenal lacked this year- they have always had such players under Wenger, be it Overmars, Ljungburg, Pires, etc.- fast and will run at you and around you and score goals. Now Arsenal only have Walcott who is still a few years away- the other dudes they are playing on the wings are all really central midfielders {Rosicky, Hleb, Denlson, Diaby, etc} We sure could use another player like that. But back to Robben, I think he is really good and dangerous and would be a good addition to any team. That being said, he seems to be injury prone. For whatever it's worth, he also is a dead ringer for Patrick McEnroe.