IKPEBA: ONLY GOD KNOWS HOW WE BEAT BRAZIL! t what point did you get Ainvolved with the team? I think it was after the first leg of the game against Egypt. The team had won with a slim 3-2 margin in Lagos and everybody knew the second leg was going to be a different ball game in Cairo and the then Secretary-General of the NFA Alhaji Sani Toro, a very wonderful man, felt that since there were still a lot of guys from the USA '94 team who were still within the age group, it was necessary to bring us in to beef up the team so that we could have a chance in Cairo. Kanu, Tijani Babangida and a few of the other guys had been with the team but myself, Taribo West, Sunday Oliseh, Austin Okocha and a couple of others were drafted into the squad for the all-important game. We had a fully Europe-based team but I won't deceive you by saying that it was easy against Egypt who were parading home-based players. It was a credit to how strong their league was that they put us on the back foot for most of the game and really punished us with relentless pressure from start to finish. The stadium was jam-packed with fans and their then President Hosni Mubarak was also in attendance. They scored and I got the equalizer which I consider one of my best goals, both for the beauty of the goal and its significance. I say it was significant because if we hadn't gotten that goal then we won't have qualified for the Olympics and we won't be talking about Atlanta today. Despite winning the final qualifying fixture home and 10 COMPLETE FOOTBALL away against Zimbabwe, many fans still doubted the ability of the Dream Team to go far at the Olympics, let alone winning the gold medal. The 3-1 loss to Togo in a friendly match also didn't help matters. Did you also have such fears then? The Togo game was ill-timed and I think it was the NFA's reaction to the clamour that the team should play at least one friendly match before leaving for the USA. The game was hastily arranged, we had players just coming back from a hectic European season who were very tired and others who were already in holiday mood and definitely not ready for that match. We lost the game and people said all sorts of things against us, especially you media people but no, I didn't doubt the team's ability. I looked around and saw the kind of quality we had, players in first teams of top European teams like Ajax, Juventus, Monaco etc and I knew we could hold our own against any opposition. Secondly, the Togo game was just a mere friendly but we always attach too much importance to friendly games in this part of the world. They are just meant to measure a team's fitness and for the coaches to try out new players and new tactical formations so whether results are good or bad, I don't attach too much to friendly games. When you finally arrived in the USA, what was the pretournament preparation like? It was okay. We played a lot of friendly games against several nonleague sides and won all and then CELEBRATION OF 2years ATLANTA GOLD MEDAL 1996 – 2016 we faced the Olympic teams of Saudi Arabia and USA and also won. So we knew the team was taking shape, not because of those results but because we were getting used to each other and bonding as a team on and off the pitch. At the beginning there were petty squabbles here and there but as time went on, we put all of that behind us and became one big family. Preparing for the games were tough because the NFA complained they didn't have money so some of us who had the means had to bring out our credit cards to help the team. We hired mini-vans with our own money and I was one of the designated drivers of the vans taking us to and from trainings. It was hard but we chose to see the funny side of it because we wanted to achieve one aim in unity. Finally, the competition began. Can you talk us through the games? We started slowly against Hungary and I came on for Kanu after he had scored the only goal of the game. It wasn't a flying start but it is always good to win your first game. Up next were the Japanese and they proved tough customers but we eventually subdued them 2-0, again I came on for Kanu. Our final group game was against Brazil but we lost 1-0 and I was a second half substitute for Emmanuel Amuneke. We knew we didn't play to our best in that game and that was even more painful than the Brazilians winning. Quarter-finals was against Mexico and we won 2-0. It was our easiest match of the competition as we lost several chances. I even missed one golden opportunity when I came on for Babangida early in the second half. We were never really troubled in that game. Then you set up the historic re-match with Brazil again. Were you guys looking for revenge? No, not at all. We wanted to win the gold medal and we had to beat the Brazilians. That was the first thing. If beating them now translated to revenge, better for us. But we never bargained for what we encountered. The Brazilians were all over us and before you knew what was happening, we were trailing 3-1. But in the second half things turned in our favour after all. Everything that could go wrong had already gone wrong. Okocha missed a penalty, we missed scoring chances and the Brazilians were unrelenting. At half-time, the coach told me I was going on to replace Amuneke but things didn't immediately improve for us until the last 15 minutes when I scored one goal to make it 3-2 before Kanu drew us level with that cheeky goal. Then Wilson Oruma's long ball forward hit me on the back and was diverted into the path of Kanu who scored in injury time with a truly golden goal. I started the final as we won the gold medal in what was Africa's finest hour. Now, 20 years after, I still replay the Brazil game in my mind. Only God knows how we beat them. If we had replayed that game the second day, they could have beaten us silly but all the elements were just in our favour. We were united, determined and lucky. Those three are important in every game. You've won a lot of accolades in your career, Victor. Where will your Olympic medal rate in your list of achievements? Definitely at the top of the pile! The Olympic, because it's a multisports competition, is very special and my medal occupies a special place in my heart. It also occupies a special place in my house as I look at it each time I feel down and my spirit is lifted. I know you were happy winning the Olympic gold but do you have any regrets about that competition? The only regret I have is that our heroes have not been treated well and I'm not talking about the Atlanta team alone. Because what we achieved in Atlanta was an historic first for Africa, you will expect that the event would be celebrated more than it is now. I didn't hear about any 10th anniversary of that event and, if not for what your organization is doing, I'm not sure the government has plans to mark the 20th anniversary. Look at the Golden Eaglets of 1985 who won the first ever U-17 tournament. You'll expect that the occasion will be celebrated and the stories told to generations yet unborn of that historic moment in 1985 when some young Nigerian kids did the black race proud in China.
The Nigerians swore revenge but fell behind inside the first minute and by the 38th minute were trailing 3-1. With 12 minutes to go, Victor Ikpeba pulled one back and on the dot of full time, it was Kanu who pulled the chestnut out of the fire, his cheeky punt going through the flailing hands of goalkeeper Dida. Four minutes into extra time, the Nigerian captain completed a remarkable comeback when he shot low into the Brazilian net to win the game and book a first-ever final appearance for an African team. The rest, as they say is history but Kanu, arguably Nigeria's most-decorated player of all time rates his Olympic medal ahead of any other title he won in his career. “Atlanta is Atlanta and will never, not for Kanu alone but for Nigerians and all of Africa, be forgotten easily. It is something you cannot equate with any other achievement. No matter what I do or become tomorrow, no matter what else I achieved in the past, nothing can equate with my Olympic gold medal. It was the peak of my career achievements and it will remain indelible in my memory for as long as I live.” For someone who won the U-17 World Cup, UEFA Champions League, African Footballer of the Year, Premier League title, English FA Cup among others, the Olympic gold must truly be golden. KANU: THE WORLD WILL NEVER FORGET WHAT WE ACHIEVED IN ATLANTA aptain of the Nigerian U-23 team to Cthe Atlanta 1998 Olympics cast an eye back to that epic moment 20 years ago when time practically stood still as the rest of humanity saluted the courage, talent and determination of 21 brave Nigerian lads who beat all-comers to claim an historic first-ever football gold medal for Africa and solemnly declares: “The world will never forget what we achieved in Atlanta. It was a precious moment, frozen in time.” Kanu, who had just concluded a deal to move to Inter Milan from Dutch champions Ajax Amsterdam prior to the Olympics, was instrumental in the victory and emerged Nigeria's top scorer with three goals with his brace in the dramatic 4-3 semi-final win over Brazil still being talked about two decades after. The gangling attacker opened Nigeria's goal account with the lone strike in the group opener against Hungary but fired blanks in the next three games as Nigeria overcame Japan, lost to Brazil and defeated Mexico to set up a rematch with Brazil which had won their group encounter. CELEBRATION OF 2years ATLANTA GOLD MEDAL 1996 – 2016 COMPLETE FOOTBALL 11