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When we were not kings

WhenWeWereNotKings

In the recently concluded Confederations Cup a lot of questions were raised and most were related to the hosts – “Are Brazil indeed ready for the big event next year”?, “How good is Neymar, is he the real deal”?, “Is this the best team Brazil has to offer?”. A lot of these were answered through the course of the tournament and in fact their thumping of Spain in the final was the clearest message – Brazil is ready, what does the world have to offer? And if Spain is the best from the rest of world the results are quite scary.  For close to six years Spain has been arguably the best football team and surely they have earned the right to warrant ‘having an off day’. In the group stages Spain looked their normal self , thumping Tahiti by 10 goals and then beating the African Champions Nigeria by three goals to nil. For those watching football since 90’s and prior to the internet boom or tiki-taka, this match was a special game and a payback of sorts.

Rewind – France 1998

On a beautiful afternoon in Nantes, Spain and Nigeria kicked off their World Cup campaign in Group D which also consisted of Bulgaria and Paraguay.  Many pundits had also tipped this group as the clichéd “Group of Death” given the uncertainty of the teams involved. In an earlier game Bulgaria and Paraguay had played out a goalless draw and therefore it was for one of these two teams to seize the initiative.

Nigeria was hampered by injuries to Kanu and Amokachi in the warmup games. The team though looked a shadow of themselves in the warm up games as they lost to Germany, Netherlands and Yugoslavia, the disappointing bit was they had conceded 9 and scored just once. There were already talks about them struggling against European teams. The squad still boasted of some talents such as Babayaro, Okocha and Ikpeba. Spain on the other hand was missing their influential midfielder Guardiola through a knee injury. The rest of the squad boasted the likes of Zubizaretta, Campo, Hierro, Luis Enrique, Morientes and Raul. With the core of the squad from Real Madrid’s Champions league winning team, many pundits believed this squad was good enough to match anyone on their given day and some felt they could even go all the way.

On match day, Spain started the brighter of the two sides and took the lead through a freekick from Hierro in the 20th minute when a deflection meant the keeper was beaten at the far post. A sense of Déjà vu was setting in amongst Nigerian fans after the drubbing they had taken at the hands of other European sides in the warm up games. To their relief Adepoju scored 5 minutes later by heading a corner. Both teams were at par when the referee blew his whistle for half time.

The second half started brightly for the Spanish team with Raul poaching a cross and slotting it home with just two minutes on the clock. Most fans expected Spain to run over Nigeria, though the African side showed better defensive resilience than what was seen in the warm up games. In the 73rd minute Nigeria equalized through winger Lawal’s shot from an acute angle which was deflected into the goal in a rather tame manner by Spanish captain Zubizarreta.  Zubizarreta had already declared ahead of the World Cup that this would be his last appearance in the national shirt. Some believed he was already past his prime and time was apt for Cannizares (Ex Real Madrid and Valencia) to step up. That was perhaps the turning point in the game as Spanish shoulders dropped and Nigeria looked the stronger side by dictating play and increasing the tempo.

The Spanish team looked out on legs as time drew close and in the 78th minute a clearance from throw in fell to Oliseh who scored one of the tournaments finest goals from 30 yards. There was nothing much that Zubizarreta could have done about this one with the ball thumping into the net and with that Nigeria had scripted one of World Cups greatest ever comebacks.

After the game an elated Oliseh said “We showed Nigeria is not dead, our problem now is to keep our heads.”

Kept their heads they did by topping the group much to the surprise of the footballing world and going to the round of 16 where they eventually lost to Denmark. This was one of their best performances in a World Cup and stands till date, some would say that they could have achieved more; the others lived in romance of the comeback.

Nigeria’s performances ever since in World Cups have nothing to boast about with the team struggling to make beyond the first round in 2002 and failing to qualify for the 2006 edition. A lot was expected of them in the 2010 World Cup considering it was played in Africa though the team disappointed again with losses to Argentina and Greece and managing just a draw against the Koreans. Victory in African Cup of Nations in 2013 has given their fans a lot of hope though the 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Spain meant the gulf between the teams was now far wider and a lot of ground to be covered.

For Spain it was a forgettable campaign as they drew their next match with Paraguay and though they thumped Bulgaria by 6 goals it was too little too late as they could only manage a third place finish in the group. The campaign was one of their biggest setbacks in a World Cup.

On that evening in Nantes, Spain looked far from being World champions or for that matter even a side close to the one that it is today. But as Buddha says, life has indeed come a full circle for Spanish football and its fans.

Ajay Chourasia
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