Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Diego Simeone, Roberto Ayala, Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro, Raul.
It could have been the shortlist for the 1996 Ballon d’Or. But the ludicrously talented crop of players were actually all representing their respective countries at the 1996 Olympic games in America.
The stage was set for someone to shine. That someone just turned out to be a 19-year-old from Owerri, Nigeria.
The Golden Eagles
Nwankwo Kanu, who just a year earlier had won the Champions League with Ajax, was part of a talented generation of Nigerians.
Taribo West, Celestine Babayaro, Jay-Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh would all go on to have esteemed careers in Europe.
But Nigeria were nowhere near favourites.
Brazil could call upon Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Bebeto, Juninho and Roberto Carlos. Argentina had Ayala, Javier Zanetti, Claudio Lopez, Simeone, Hernan Crespo and Ariel Ortega.
France, with Pires, Sylvain Wiltord and Claude Makelele, Italy, with Cannavaro, Nesta and Gianluigi Buffon and Spain, with Raul and Fernando Morientes were all dangerous.
Even Australia could call upon Mark Viduka.
Arise, Sir Kanu
Nigeria were drawn in Group D, alongside favourites Brazil, Hidetoshi Nakata’s Japan and Hungary.
Kanu, all 6ft 2in legs and flailing arms, scored the only goal of the game against Hungary in Nigeria’s opening game, while Brazil were shocked by Japan in a 1-0 loss.
It was a typical piece of Kanu magic. Picking up the 40-yards from goal with nothing on, Kanu lazily dropped the shoulder before going through the gears and playing a wall pass to open space where there was none.
Next up were Japan. For 82 minutes Nigeria came up against a brick wall until a scrappy Tijani Babangida goal broke the deadlock. Jay-Jay Okocha added the gloss from the penalty spot eight minutes later.
A 1-0 loss to Brazil in the final group game, in which Ronaldo scored his second goal of the tournament, proved to be a relatively pointless as both sides progressed through to the next round.
It was time for the Mexicans.
Spoiling the party
From Mexico to Birmingham, Alabama, is 1,406 miles. From Nigeria to Birmingham is 6,202 miles.
So it was little surprise that Mexico had the bigger support at the 45,000-seater Legion Field.
Home support or not, Nigeria made short work of Mexico. Okocha opened the scoring in the 20th minute with a scuffed shot past a typically colourful Jorge Campos.
Babayaro doubled the lead after pouncing on an aborted bicycle kick to send Nigeria through to the semi-final. So far so good.
The greatest semi-final in knockout history?
Brazil were already 1-0 up by the time most of the 80,000-strong crowd had sat down to watch the semi-final in Georgia.
Flavio Conceicao found a gap in the Nigerian wall that probably shouldn’t have been there to put Brazil ahead. But after 20 minutes Nigeria were level thanks to a Roberto Carlos own goal.
Even when scoring in his own goal Carlos nearly broke the net.
Brazil struck back through Bebeto and another Conceicao goal- one which showcased typically languid Brazilian flair- to leave Nigeria staring down the barrel.
Victor Ikpeba made it 3-2 with 12 minutes left to play, but Nigeria were still heading out. Kanu time.
With the game in the 90th minute Okocha put aside the rainbow flicks and stepovers for an old fashioned long throw. The ball bobbled around the box as everyone- attackers and defenders- panicked.
Not Kanu though. When the ball came his way he simply flicked the ball up over the goalkeeper and nutmegged the defender on the line. So Kanu.
The big man wasn’t done there either. With the game in extra time Nigeria launched the ball forward.
A Nigerian attacker was so focused on making a forward run that he neglected to look where the ball was, accidentally ricocheting a pass to the edge of the box.
On ran Kanu.
While most strikers at that stage of the game would have tried their luck and put their foot through it, Kanu dropped a shoulder, sending two Brazilian defenders for a stroll on Copacabana beach, and slotted the ball past the keeper.
Time for celebration
Again Nigeria came up against South American foe in the final, this time Argentina, and again they went down early, with Claudio Lopez putting his side ahead after three minutes.
Babayaro and Daniel Amokachi hit back before Crespo equalised from the penalty spot. The game needed another late hero.
This time it wouldn’t be Kanu, who’d used up all his magic in the semi-final. Instead it fell to Emmanuel Amunike to be the 90th minute hero.
That goal won Amunike a move to Barcelona and ensured Nigeria went down in the history books as gold medallists.
But the true hero of the story was one man. Who needs Ronaldo when you’ve got Kanu?
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