ATRICK PASCAL, one of Pfour alternate players in the DREAM TEAM's march to gold in Atlanta was also one of only two outfield home-based players in the team. The then 3SC utility player who later played in Europe shortly after took a trip down memory lane to recall the U-23 Eagles route to victory 20 years ago in this interview with KAYODE OGUNDARE… How did you get invited to the team? I can say I was a foundation member of the team because we were the players who played at the 1995 All Africa Games in Harare Zimbabwe under coach Willy Bazuaye. We won bronze medal at that competition and formed the nucleus of the U-23 team which played the African qualifiers of the 1996 Olympics. When the qualifiers started and we played 0-0 against Kenya in Lagos, the NFA drafted foreignbased professionals like Nwankwo Kanu, Austin Okocha, Celestine Babayaro, Taribo West and others to beef up the team. We went to Kenya for the return leg and in the match tagged the 'battle of Mombasa', we walloped the Kenyans 3-0. I guess that was the origin of the tag 'Dream Team' giving the kind of talents in the team. Despite the presence of these star players, I retained my place in the team even though I was an home-based player. I was with 3SC of Ibadan and we were actually the best team in the country at that time. Abiodun Baruwa, my teammate, was also in the team. Ndubuisi Ndah, captain of Enugu Rangers, was one other homebased player who finally made the team to Atlanta. How was preparation like after qualifying? We camped in Enugu and the training was intense as everybody tried to justify their inclusion in the team. The presence of the foreignbased players also upped the competition and everybody really gave their best to be in the team. Then Bonfrere Jo was also drafted to the team from the Super Eagles so, effectively, we were the senior national team of Nigeria because if you check, with the exception of one or two players missing, the Atlanta team became our Super Eagles for the next few years. The 3-1 friendly loss to Togo created a lot of doubt in the minds of the fans and the media. Did you also share the belief at that time that maybe the team was not good enough? The players were unruffled because we knew Togo was not playing in the Olympics and while it is good to do well in friendly games, it is not a do-or-die affair. The fans may be worried and the media could create doubt about the team's chances but the most important thing was self-belief and we had that aplenty. We knew what we are capable of doing when the chips are down. We were like 14 COMPLETE FOOTBALL CELEBRATION OF 2years ATLANTA GOLD MEDAL 1996 – 2016 ROAD TO SUCCESS IN ATLANTA WAS ROUGH – PATRICK PASCAL soldiers. We knew what was at stake and we knew when to get down to business. So, to answer your question, we were not worried. And how was the pretournament camping in the USA? It was far from ideal. Fortunately, winning the gold medal covered up a lot of inadequacies that we faced. There was no money. Most times we came back from training sessions to find out that we had been locked out of our hotel rooms because of unpaid bills. I remember once when we didn't even have training kits but the players' resolved to make sure that Nigeria was not disgraced saw us through. There was no means of transport to and from trainings. It was some of the foreign-based professionals who were using their credit cards to make purchases for us. Judging by the preparations or the lack of it, nobody thought we could reach the medals zone. Nobody complained outwardly even though we were having a rough time. We were united in our determination to write our names in gold so we set aside all the petty distractions. Okay. When the competition started, at what point did you start to believe Nigeria could actually win it? In Atlanta, myself, Baruwa, Ndah and Jonathan Akpoborie were registered as alternate players which means that we can only be registered to play if anyone in the first 18 got injured and couldn't continue in the competition. However we were all together in camp until Akpoborie decided to return to his German club. The team had self-belief as most of the players had already made their debut for the Super Eagles and the talent in the team was just awesome. We were not cocky but we improved with each passing game and by the time we won our quarter-final game against Mexico, I think the thought crept into the players mind that a medal was possible. The Brazil match was one that generated a lot of emotions and reactions. What are your thoughts about that game? I still consider our winning that game as nothing short of a miracle. A lot of things conspired in our favour. Any other day, any other team, with Brazil leading 3- 1 at half-time you know it's all over. We played well but we also had lucky breaks. Don't forget that Brazil scored what I still considered a perfectly valid goal but which the referee ruled out. If that goal had stood it would have made our job of coming back more difficult. Then we missed a penalty and then Kanu went on to score on the dot of 90 minutes to tie the game. Also remember that Brazil coach substituted Ronaldo and that was a big boost for us because we all knew what his mere presence on the pitch meant. After the final game against Argentina, how did you feel knowing that you guys were champions and that Nigeria became the first African country to win Olympic gold? For me, it didn't sink in until we got a call from the then head of state Gen Sani Abacha to personally congratulate the players on the feat. He spoke to us one after the other and that's when I realized that it was something great. And then when we came back a grand reception was orgasnised for the team. We got one million naira each as well as national honour of Member of Order of the Niger (MON). Besides, some states gave their indigenes lands while some had streets named after them. What does your Olympic gold mean to you? Being Olympic champion is something special. Winning Africa's first Olympic football gold medal is extra special. Being a part of this group makes me feel blessed beyond measure and I remain thankful to those who gave me the opportunity and grateful to God for counting me worthy.
helped to stop the Brazilians from doing further damage. As a matter of fact, we got stronger and pushed forward and we could have equalized or even gone on to win with a slice of luck. We lost 1- 0 courtesy of Ronaldo de Lima's first half goal. I STILL HAVE GOOSE BUMPS 20 YEARS AFTER – GARBA LAWAL ow did your invitation to the U- H23 team come about? I had moved from Julius Berger to Esperance of Tunisia in November 1994 and thus missed the FA Cup final against BCC Lions. I played the semi-finals in which I scored twice against Rangers and I was looking forward to playing and winning the final but the deal went through much more quickly than I thought it would. The U-23 team had narrowly defeated Egypt 3-2 in the first leg second round of the qualifying series for the Olympics so the NFA's Secretary-General Alhaji Sani Toro insisted that the return leg in Cairo must be prosecuted by foreign-based professionals and that was how I was invited alongside some Europebased players like Austin Okocha, Teslim Fatusi, Victor Ikpeba, Tijani Babangida, Taribo West, Celestine Babayaro etc. We held Egypt to a 1-1 draw in Cairo and qualified for the final round 4-3 aggregate. I was also in the team that defeated Zimbabwe 2- 0 aggregate home and away in the final qualifying round. Apparently I did enough in those qualifying games to get a place in the final selection. What was preparation like for the Olympics? We were camped in Enugu for about one month. Luckily it was during the summer break so we had the full complement of our invited Europe-based players all together in camp. After the camping, the Federation officials insisted that we must play a friendly match so that Nigerians could assess the readiness of the team. That was how a friendly game was hurriedly arranged with Togo which we lost 3-1 and that didn't help us at all as those who doubted the teams ability had enough ammunition to criticize. Talking about the loss to Togo, that must have been a very low point for the team. Surely that affected self-belief in your ability to make an impact at the Olympics if you couldn't beat 'ordinary' Togo? On the contrary, I think coach Johannes Bonfrere used the game to test some players that he hadn't decided on before. Besides, we were not prepared for that game as some of the players even came to have a nice time and not to play a match. It was obvious the guys that played lacked fitness and that was what the coach wanted to see. There was uproar after the game but luckily we travelled out to the United States that same night so we escaped a backlash from the media. And how was the camping in the United States like? Ha, we had very intensive training when we got to the US, more than what we did in Nigeria. The first inkling that we were in America for serious business was that, barely 30 minutes after we landed in the US, Bonfrere ordered everybody to kit up and get ready for training. What! We just got off a seven-hour flight, we complained but he wasn't having any of that. The training was grueling but we needed to prove some people back home wrong that we were not good enough to win anything. We camped in Tallahasee, Florida and played lots of friendly games with some minor teams which we won with big 7-0, 8-0 margins. Then we played against the USA and Saudi Arabian Olympic teams and also defeated them but I can't remember the exact scores. By then we felt we were ready for the competition. Don't forget the foundation of the team was from the generation of 1994 with some of us that came on the scene in 1995 so it was for a reason that we were call the Dream CELEBRATION OF years 2Team and we needed to justify that ATLANTA GOLD MEDAL tag. 1996 – 2016 Good. Now can you talk us through the matches once the competition got underway? Yeah, our first match was against Hungary and we won 1-0. The match was difficult probably because we were tensed at the beginning but as the game went on we got our confidence and played some delightful football towards the end of the game. I came in as a substitute for Emmanuel Amuneke in the 76th minute. The second game was against Japan which ended 2-0 in our favour. The goals came very late but we did enough to ensure that we reached the quarter-finals. Again I came on for Amuneke in the second half. The final group game was against Brazil and we were really fired up because even though we had qualified, Nigeria had history with Brazil from previous competitions so we wanted to ensure that we beat them. It was more for pride than points. Celestine Babayaro was suspended for that match so Abiodun Obafemi, a natural central defender, was drafted to left fullback but he wasn't doing too well so at half-time Bonfrere told me to warm up as I was going to go in to replace Obafemi at left back. I was an attacking player and I had never played in defence before, not even in training. I panicked and called late coach Abdullahi to one side to complain that I'm not a defender but he encouraged me to just go in and do my best. I came on for Obafemi in the first minute of the second-half and You were in the quarter-finals, which no Nigerian team before you had ever managed to cross. Did you have any sense of achievement at that stage? Of course not! There are no medals for reaching the quarterfinals so we didn't feel we had achieved anything yet. The quarter-final was against Mexico. Babayaro was back to his position and I, as usual, came in for Amuneke again in the second half as we won 2-0 to reach the semifinal where we were to meet Brazil again. In the game against Mexico, Sunday Oliseh who had been one of our most outstanding players was sent-off for two yellow cards which means he was going to miss the semi-final. He called me aside and told me I may have to play in his position in defensive midfield. I was an attacking midfielder and I never saw myself with any defensive quality but Oliseh psyched me up that I could do it. Later, Bonfrere also called me to his room and told me the same thing. He said I was going to be playing with Austin Okocha in the middle but that while I give Okocha the freedom to go forward, I should never forget my role in the centre of midfield. So, as the game progressed, I naturally drifted upfront but always managed to catch myself just in time to get back in line. Yet, at half-time we were trailing 3-1 and appeared heading for elimination. So what exactly went on in the dressing room at half-time? What special motivation did the coach give you guys that spurred you to come out fighting? You won't believe it but the strangest thing happened in the dressing room. Bonfrere looked at us and said if Brazil could score three goals in 45 minutes, we are also good enough to do the same. He then took a cup of coffee and sat down. The senior players then took over to give pep talk but I didn't see one player in the room who felt we had lost the game. Everybody was still fired up that we could save the day. We went back and soon enough got a penalty which Okocha missed yet we didn't give up. We kept pushing until we scored and that just served to ginger us up. Then Kanu came up with his magic when everybody thought it was over. What were the emotions passing through you at the final whistle? Surprise. Shock. Disbelief. What we achieved had not registered in my brain until they started calling us over the public address system during the medals presentations. I heard: Nigeria, Olympic champions of the world. I nearly died of happiness. Even now, 20 years after, I still play back that moment in my head and I get goose bumps all over my body. It was scary in a very good way. COMPLETE FOOTBALL 15