13th June 1998. The FIFA World Cup is in mourning. Fernand Sastre, who had helped bring the World Cup to France with Michel Platini, has died after a long battle with ill health. But despite rumours of matches being cancelled, the show had to go on, and the tournament was treated to an absolute classic.
It was billed as one of the big games of the first round of group stages matches, and a battle between the previous two Olympic gold medal-winning teams. Spain, who had won in Barcelona in 1992, had long been considered the dark horses for major tournaments, without ever turning their considerable talents into something concrete on the big occasion – witness the crumbling against Italy in 1994, or the penalty shootout exit in Euro 96. They would start the match, and the group, as clear favourites, as well as potential contenders for the overall tournament.
But in Nigeria they would face a team on whom so much expectation had been placed. Winning the gold medal in Atlanta, by far the greatest achievement by an African side in international football thus far, suggested that at last the continent had a team they could hope or even expect could go far in this World Cup. This was especially in light of promising performances from the Super Eagles in their first World Cup appearance in 1994, where they had topped a group including Argentina and Bulgaria before Roberto Baggio took it upon himself to single-handedly knock them out in the second round.
Their squad was a mixture of survivors from four years before and the young Olympic team. But not only was this a team for now – with an average age of less than 26, and only six players over the age of 30, this was a team we could expect to grow and blossom over more than one cycle. To guide them they had the vastly experienced globetrotter Bora Milutinovic, in his fourth consecutive World Cup with a different nation.
In Peter Rufai, the team had a solid, experienced goalkeeper – now 34, he plied his trade for Deportivo La Coruna in La Liga. In front was a youthful back four – the full-backs were Kapellen’s Mobi Oparaku (21) and Chelsea’s Celestine Babayaro (19), while in the middle was green-haired Inter centre-back Taribo West (24) and captain Uche Okechukwu (30) of Fenerbahce.
A dynamic five-man midfield sat in front, with the lynch pin being Fenerbahce playmaker Jay-Jay Okocha (24), who stood out with his hair dyed orange. He was surrounded by further mercurial talents in Roda JC’s Garba Lawal (24), Real Sociedad’s Mutiu Adepoju (27), Ajax’s Sunday Oliseh (23) and Real Betis’ Finidi George (27). Up front on his own was Monaco striker Victor Ikpeba (24), but Bora had plenty of further attacking options to call upon off the bench, including Besiktas’ Daniel Amokachi (25), Inter’s Nwankwo Kanu (21), and one of the heroes of 1994, FC Zurich’s Rashidi Yekini (34), who had been recalled after missing all of qualifying. Rapid Ajax winger Tijani Babangida (24) was also an option to stretch defences late on.
To take on the golden Super Eagles, Spain coach Javier Clemente opted to field Real Madrid’s Fernando Hierro and Barcelona’s Miguel Angel Nadal in central midfield in order to try and shut down Okocha, likely to be the main threat. Without Josep Guardiola – injured and with a fraught relationship with Clemente – it hinted at the lack of someone the coach trusted to control the game in the middle of the park. Instead, centre-back Nadal sat in front of the back four of Albert Ferrer, Rafael Alkorta, Ivan Campo and Sergi. Luis Enrique and Alfonso Perez provided width, while Real Madrid youngster Raul provided support for Atletico striker Kiko.
Spain, playing in their white away kit, made an uncharacteristically aggressive start – within seconds of the kick-off, a long ball over the top found Raul on the corner of the box, but the 20-year-old’s volley was matched by Rufai who palmed it away. They continued to apply early pressure as they sought to take control of the match. In particular, Raul’s pace seemed a real threat to the Nigerian defence, and shortly after he found space in the box to connect with a brilliant cross from Ferrer, only for his powerful header to crack the crossbar with Rufai rooted.
It seemed only a matter of time before they would take the lead. And despite Nigeria growing into the game and slowly but surely asserting themselves on the midfield, it eventually came 20 minutes in. A clumsy foul on Alfonso by Oparaku on the edge of the box gave Spain a dangerous free kick. Hierro didn’t strike it particularly sweetly, but it either deflected off Alfonso’s arm or Taribo West on the end of the wall (the replay was unclear), and Rufai was in no position to keep it out.
Watching live, one might have assumed that Spain, clearly the more technically gifted side, would now stretch their legs and seal this one before half time. But the 1998 World Cup would not be a tournament that stuck to the same old script. Just three minutes later, a skillful run and through ball from Finidi found Ikpeba, who won a corner off Campo. Lawal’s in-swinger to the near post found Adepoju, with Andoni Zubizarreta in the Spain goal nowhere near. Ferrer connected his head to it, but could only divert it into the roof of the net.
From then on to half time, the contest seemed to have little pattern – just a succession of chances for either side. Okocha was gradually winning his battle with the Spanish holding midfielders, finding increasing amounts of time and Space, while Finidi was proving a menace, with a dangerous cross skidding down the corridor of uncertainty past everyone. At the other hand, Raul was finding all the right positions, and was unlucky not to get an assist, clipping a great ball into Luis Enrique on the edge of the six-yard box, only for the Barcelona man to fail to bring the ball under control and attempt a flailing dive to try and incriminate Babayaro. At the interval, it was 1-1, but Spain still seemed the more likely victors.
Spain rearranged their team for the second half, with Clemente recognising the need for a midfield playmaker. Guillermo Amor was drafted in, with the impressive Ferrer sacrificed, Nadal moved to centre-back and Campo to right-back. They again started quickly, and this time made good of it. Just seconds into the half, Hierro lofted a long floating ball into the box, which club mate Raul instinctively chased. Oparaku chased and slid in vain, but he was a yard behind the ball. Raul was exactly where he needed to be, magnificently volleying in from close range. It perfectly demonstrated the prowess and technical ability of a man set to take European football by storm over the next decade.
At 2-1, it seemed as if Spain’s defence had been let off the hook, but any more thoughts of an Iberian cruise in the second half were once again scuppered. The Super Eagles refused to lie down, and 70 minutes in, Bora introduced the experienced Yekini for Oparaku as they looked for more hustle and bustle in their forward line, something the big man would deliver in spades. Just three minutes later, it paid off.
Okocha, forever harried but always seemingly having enough time on the ball, sent a long pass over to Lawal. The winger slid the ball to Yekini, who drew in and held off Alkorta before returning the pass. Lawal then evaded Campo’s lunge and found himself at the by-line. He optimistically struck it hard down the line towards Zubizarreta. Two countries watched, and gasped.
You would have expected the captain, playing in his 124th international at the age of 36, to have routinely collected the ball with no drama. However, as his natural successor Iker Casillas would later find out, talent and experience doesn’t prevent lapses in judgement. In this case, Zubi’s would be catastrophic – probably the moment it all unravelled for Spain in the match and the tournament. Lawal struck a powerful shot across the goalmouth, which wasn’t going in, but Zubi decided to make a slight movement in the wrong direction, leaving him dreadfully positioned for the shot, and for some bizarre reason he decided to stick his right hand out, diverting the ball into the net. It was, by all accounts, an absolute clanger.
Spain immediately went back on the front foot, and the game opened up. Basque hero Joseba Etxeberria, on for Alfonso after an hour, made a run down the right flank and his neatly-threaded low cross found Raul arriving at the far post once again. But this time the young man’s finish let him down, somehow slicing it wide; he wasn’t the finished article just yet. Moments later, the Spanish were left to rue this huge miss.
At the other end, Ikpeba’s hussle nearly won Nigeria another corner, but Alkorta swept the ball out for a throw in. Not content with running the Spanish midfield ragged with his feet, Okocha now stepped up to take a long throw, and he found the middle of the penalty area. Hierro headed it well clear of the box, but the ball bounced and sat up beautifully 30 yards out for the lurking Oliseh. Never one to shy away from a long range effort, his right foot connected as sweetly as one could ever hope to strike a ball. It was one of those drives where you know it’s in before the goalkeeper’s had chance to dive. In fairness to Zubizarreta, he managed to somehow get a hand to it, but could only tip it onto the inside of the post. The Super Eagles players were in raptures; with 13 minutes to go, they were in front for the first time.
With an upset on the cards, the game opened up entirely. Yekini, though clearly not at peak physical fitness, continued to shake up the Spanish defenders, and he initiated a wonderful move. Ikpeba stretched the defence to the left, sent a crossfield ball over to Okocha on the right flank, who chested it to Finidi . He backheeled to Adepoju, who in turn it slipped to Oliseh, who split two Spanish defenders with another driving run before finding Finidi again, now in acres of space on the right flank. His cross was perfect and found the man who started it all, Yekini, totally alone on the penalty spot. The big man athletically leaped into the air for the scissors kick. For a split second there existed a moment in time where either Yekini would score one of the greatest World Cup goals of all time, or slice it into the crowd. He sliced it into the crowd.
Minutes later, Nigeria were nearly made to pay for Yekini’s overambitious attempt. Spain surged forward again with Amor driving them on. Etxeberria had white shirts queuing up in the middle, but his cross was low and evaded all of them except the rapidly-arriving Sergi. With his right foot he bent a shot towards the far post. It curled, but not enough, just missing the target.
When referee Esfandiar Baharmast blew up for full time, it brought to a close a thoroughly entertaining encounter, but it also seemingly ended any serious thoughts people had for Spain being strong contenders. The attacking verve of the Euro 96 side was seemingly absent. Their defence, despite its star names, had been exposed dramatically from all angles. Its midfield, shorn of the creativity and control of Guardiola, had been overrun, and the goalkeeper had made a costly error which allowed the opposition back into the game. Any facade of invincibility had disappeared faster than Finidi George on a mazy dribble.
The postscript was equally dramatic. Clemente made five changes for the next game but met a resolute Paraguayan defence in a 0-0 draw. This left circumstances out of their hands for the deciding game, and despite a thumping 6-1 win over Bulgaria, they crashed out at the group stage – a humiliating exit for a team regarded as one of the favourites just over a week before. That wait for a major tournament success would go on for another 10 years.
As for Nigeria, a second win over Bulgaria, courtesy of Ikpeba’s goal, sent them through to the second round. Bora rested much of the side for the third game against Paraguay, allowing the South Americans the win they needed to knock Spain out. But as has often proven to be the case, these changes may ultimately have disrupted their momentum. In the last 16 they came up against a formidable Denmark side, and the dynamism of the Laudrups put the lacklustre Super Eagles to the sword in a 4-1 win.
Four years on and Nigeria were again present, but this generation of Super Eagles had never blossomed as many had hoped. Mutterings of age fraud have always surrounded this group of players – if rumours and accusations are to be believed, Taribo West may have been 36 even by the time of the 1998 tournament, though he was still there again in 2002, along with Okocha, Lawal, Babayaro, Adepoju and Kanu. The others of the 1996-98 generation peaked very early and didn’t make it to East Asia. Instead, Festus Onigbinde’s team slumped out at the group stage, with 1 goal (from Julius Aghahowa) and a point from a 0-0 draw with England.
But though the future would be underwhelming in the end, for that one moment in time in June 1998, Nigeria really did look like being world-beaters. The promise seemed to be there. The doubts and questions were all put to one side, and they beat one of the favourites for the World Cup.