Nigeria's ascent to African power
Traditionally, football's administrative power was European, its playing power South American and emerging power African. So by the time the 1990s arrived, it was time to unlock a commercial power. That meant going to only one place: the United States.
Although no professional league existed in the country at the time, the U.S. was awarded the tournament as part of a plan to ignite interest in the game in what was then the world's largest economy. It proved a massive success. The 1994 tournament remains the best-attended in history, but that is not the only reason it holds fond memories. For one African team, it was the tournament that announced their arrival as a footballing force, and 20 years later they still have reason to consider themselves a force.
Current African champions Nigeria made their first appearance at the World Cup in 1994. It marked the beginning of both a golden period and a love affair with the U.S. Nigeria won the continental title in 1994, racked up successive round-of-16 finishes at World Cups and won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games U-23 tournament in Atlanta. In that period, some of the legends of Nigeria's game emerged, such as Rashidi Yekini, Jay-Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh and goalkeeper Peter Rufai.
But the Nigerians did not have well-known reputations when they lined up for their first group stage match against Bulgaria in Dallas, even though their entire squad played professionally outside of their home country. Bulgaria were on a 16-match winless streak and Nigeria showed their intent to increase that barren run in the 21st minute.
Yekini collected a pass from Finidi George and scored the opening goal. The match report from The New York Times detailed how he kept running until he reached the depths of the goal, where he "held the netting with both hands, his eyes pressed shut with the setting sun shining on his face, as he screamed with joy."
Bulgaria forced Rufai into making several saves, but his attack ensured that even if he missed one, the Super Eagles would stay ahead. Yekini was the architect of the second goal, and Bulgarian coach Dimitar Penev admitted his team "lost motivation" after that. Nigeria added a third before the final whistle, and the result led local journalists to believe there was a possibility of repeating Cameroon's 1990 quarterfinal run.
When Nigeria took the lead against Argentina in the game that followed, those suspicions went some way to being confirmed. But by halftime, Maradona magic had woven its way around the Nigerian defence and the South Americans were 2-1 up. The score line did not change, leaving Nigeria with much to do against Greece.
What gave Nigeria hope was that the Greek side were also making their first appearance at a World Cup and were an aging bunch. They had been beaten 4-0 by both Argentina and Bulgaria. That self-belief was justified by a halftime lead, and superiority was cemented by one of the best goals of the tournament.
Four minutes into injury time, Daniel Amokachi threaded his way past four defenders and shot from outside the box, curling the ball into the top-left corner of the net. Amokachi remembered that as "my favourite memory of playing for the national team -- even the referee congratulated me."
That result saw Nigeria top the group on goal difference and set up a date with Italy. Again, they grabbed an early lead when Finidi's corner was deflected into the path of Emmanuel Amunike. As a result, Nigeria allowed Italy to dictate proceedings throughout the second half, and as the clock wound down, Roberto Baggio made them pay. He slotted home from 14 yards to drag the match into extra time, where he converted the penalty that knocked out Nigeria. They received generous praise from the American fans, who enjoyed their physical style of play, but a spot in the quarterfinals would have been better.
Two years later, Nigeria managed to go further when they beat Brazil and Argentina on their way to glory in Atlanta. Okocha, Oliseh and a youngster called Kanu were part of that team. Nigeria knew they were building toward something, and they hoped to be able to see what that was at the next World Cup in 1998.
Their squad in France contained 10 of the 22 members who had played in the U.S. four years earlier, and they were primed for big things. Preparation for the tournament did not go according to plan, though. Nigeria were beset by injuries and lost to Germany, Yugoslavia and Netherlands in the lead-up. That may have left Spain thinking they would have it easy, but it was anything of the sort.
Spain had the lead after 21 minutes through a penalty, but Nigeria equalised to leave matters level at halftime. After the break, the seesaw continued. Spain were in the lead again seconds into the second half and Nigeria drew level with 18 minutes remaining. It was only when Oliseh slammed the ball into the back of the net from 30 yards out that Nigeria had the advantage. They held on to deliver one of the greatest upsets of the competition.
"This win was for 150 million Nigerians," Oliseh said. "We showed Nigeria is not dead. Our problem now is to keep our heads."
Nigeria went on to beat an opponent from the 1994 tournament, Bulgaria, and not even a 3-1 defeat to Paraguay could stop them from topping the group again. But in Denmark they found opposition they could not match up to, and a 4-1 loss in the round of 16 sent Nigeria home at the same stage as they departed four years ago.
Those two tournaments remain Nigeria's standout showings at the World Cup. In two appearances since then, 2002 and 2010, Nigeria have exited at the group stage. They are determined to change that this summer in Brazil.