Throwback Thursday: Atlanta 96 Olympics; The birth of a new Nigerian song

It’s pretty difficult to remember when a song came about. Bar trivia and games nights questions are filled with questions like “when was this song released”. You might think you know the answer but a lot of times, you end up being wrong. 

For one song though, this particular song, there could be no mistaking the year it came to light. It goes like this: 

When Nigeria beat Brazil
When Nigeria beat Brazil o
Bebeto come dey cry
When Nigeria beat Brazil. 

There can be no mistake that this song, sang to the tune of a popular gospel song, was made prominent in the year 1996. 

It was coined quite brilliantly to celebrate perhaps Nigeria’s proudest international moment. Their crowning as Olympic Champions. 

The song was coined to have many stanzas. As many as possible depending on how many Brazilians whose names had three syllables and ended with an ‘o’ you could remember. 

Luckily for the passionate singers and supporters club, there were many and they were mostly remarkably talented. Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto (Carlos), Juninho, and Bebeto could all take turns being the ones to shed tears to the glory of Nigeria’s Dream Team

Few without grey hairs would recall that before the immortalized semifinal where Nigeria did in fact beat Brazil as the song says, the sides had actually met before that in the group stage of the same 1996 Olympic tournament. 

In that meeting, Brazil outplayed Nigeria eventually winning through a solitary goal through then 19-year-old phenom Ronaldo de Lima. 

It was no surprise that Brazil beat Nigeria. They were a better team. Just looking at the players who are mentioned above, it’s rather obvious. The Nigerian team at the Olympics were no slouches of course, but while Nigeria had Champions of Africa in their team, Brazil had World Champions. This was one reason why there were no surprises that Brazil won the first encounter, but it wasn’t the only reason. Another major reason was that leading up to the 1996 Olympics (as with most major tournaments), Nigeria’s preparation was in shambles. 

First, Nigeria had been embargoed by a dictatorial decree from playing at the 1996 AFCON despite qualifying as the defending Champions. When Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was murdered after a frivolous trial by the Nigerian Government, Nigeria was thrown out of the Commonwealth of African Nations and General Sani Abacha decreed that Nigeria should not participate in the 1996 AFCON tournament in retaliation for that, throwing the country’s immediate football future into chaos at a time that was gearing to be the country’s peak.  

To add to this, the coach Bonfrere Jo was also set to be axed after a lackluster loss to Togo in one of the warm-up games for the Olympics but for the intervention of the team players who sided with their coach against the Nigerian Football Federation(Association then). 

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In the midst of all that uncertainty, Nigeria went into the Olympics without any real funding and players had to fund their own movement and lodging. They also had to deal with racism disguised as a phobia of the AIDS epidemic that was ravaging America at the time as hotel employees refused to clean the Nigerian team’s training kits. 

Despite all the obstacles lined up against the Dream Team and the defeat against Brazil, they still managed to qualify from their group with two wins in their other two matches. They beat Hungary 1-0 and Japan 2-0. They had the fortune of one Japanese own goal to help them in the tie, but the other two goals were scored by players who would go on to become two of the biggest names in Nigerian and African football. 

The first giant, Nwankwo Kanu scored the winner after ending a slaloming run by receiving a return pass from Emmanuel Amunike and finishing with his first touch low into the bottom corner and then Austin “Jay Jay’ Okocha usually the flamboyant master of tricks and all things eccentric had to settle for a rather simple penalty against Japan.


In the quarterfinal against Mexico, he scored again. This time receiving a cross outside the ‘D’ of the penalty box, he expertly brought the ball down and volleyed home from more than 20 yards. That one was more his style and after he opened the scoring, another global superstar to be Celestine Babayaro scored a second goal that confirmed that Nigeria would play in the semifinals of the Olympics just like their fierce rivals Ghana had done just four years earlier. 

In the Semifinal, they faced their toughest test yet. A test they had failed in the group stage, a test that Ghana themselves had failed in the Quarterfinal. They faced Brazil. 

From the onset, it appeared Nigeria would fail the test again. After only one minute, Brazil had taken the lead. A deflected Flavio Conceicao freekick opened the scoring and set the favourites on their way, but this time. Nigeria had an answer. Babayaro received the ball just inside the Brazil area and put a cross into the six-yard box, missing the Nigerian forwards in the box but finding Roberto Carlos who inadvertently put the ball into his own goal. 

In the 1994 World Cup, Bebeto was in inspired form, scoring three goals as Brazil lifted the title, with him in the squad was a 17-year-old boy wonder named Ronaldo. So young was he that he had to change his name to give respect to a senior teammate also called Ronaldo and for the entirety of the 1994 World Cup and 1996 Olympics, Ronaldo de Lima was known as Ronaldinho (little Ronaldo).

He and Bebeto pillaged goals at the Olympics scoring a combined nine goals and against Nigeria, they conspired for one of the nine. Ronaldo’s mazy run ended in a shot that was parried by Nigerian goalkeeper Dosu Joseph into the path of Bebeto who made no mistake with the goal gaping. Brazil had been pegged back once already on the night and worked hard to get another goal for security and just before halftime, Flavio Conceicao gave Brazil the goal they had looked for. In their minds, the game was won at halftime. But only in their minds. 

The Brazilians in the second half were more relaxed, less purposeful, and were only too happy to fluff good chances in what should have been a closed game. Their missed chances started to haunt them when in the 78th minute, Victor Ikpeba scored a brilliant effort from the edge of the box and celebrated wildly even though Nigeria were still losing 3-2. After watching the goal celebration over and over again, I can’t help but wonder, did he know? Did he know what was coming? 

In the 85th minute, Brazil withdrew Ronaldo/Ronaldinho so he could put his leg up and rest for the final but only five minutes later, Nigeria equalized. 

With the game entering its final minute, Okocha sent in a long throw, one of his many specialties, and the ball found its way to Kanu in some space in the six-yard box with his back to the goal and Brazil’s goalkeeper Dida diving desperately at his feet. Throughout his career, Kanu never seemed to be rushed, never looked flustered or affected by desperate lunges and attempts to get the ball off him.

He just wanted to listlessly swerve past oncoming traffic and play with the ease of a grandpa waltzing around his garden showing his toddlers a few tricks. With the corner of his eye, he spotted DIda’s hopeful attempt at nicking the ball of his boot and casually lifted the ball of the goalkeeper’s hands, turning in the same moment to send the ball into the net with his next touch and tie the game at 3-3 signaling extra time with the prospect of a golden goal. 

With the teams setting up for the prospect of another 30 minutes of extra time, Kanu decided he was having none of that and within three of the restart in extra time, he settled the tie with another majestic piece of brilliance.

Wilson Oruma tried to find the run of Victor Ikpeba in the Brazilian box, but the ball came back off Ikpeba’s back and fell to Kanu who took a first touch to rid himself of an onrushing defender and with his second touch once again guided the ball past Dida and put Nigeria in the final of the Olympics for the first time ever ending Brazil’s dream of a classic against Argentina to decide the winner of Olympic gold. At only 19, the same age as Ronaldo, Kanu had made himself a National and indeed continental Icon. 

In the final, Nigeria met with another South American giant, and again, they fell behind to an early goal. This time, Claudio Lopez needed only three minutes to open the scoring but once again, Celestine Babayaro was on hand to rescue Nigeria with a brilliantly headed equaliser. 

Nigeria had conceded just before halftime against Brazil and this time they conspired to concede just after the break. Ariel Ortega’s run into the Nigerian area was halted illegally by Taribo West and Hernan Crespo gave Argentine the lead from the resulting penalty. 

Nigeria had been in this position before, down under the foot of a giant who was willing to squeeze out every last breath from her to reach its goal of totally dominating her but just like against Brazil, Nigeria rose above the tyrant and triumphed even if only on the field of play. 

With 15 minutes left to play, Daniel Amokachi equalised with a delicate chip over Pablo Cavallero in goal for Argentina and in the final minute of normal time, Okocha’s freekick found Emmanuel Amuneke who was totally deserted in Argentina’s box after a shoddily employed offside trap and slotted home from the cross to give Nigeria the lead with virtually no time for the Argentines to muster a reply. 

There were many songs to celebrate the feat of becoming Olympic Champions, but none resonated as far and none was more sonorous and catchy than the song about crying Brazilians in the wake of Nigeria’s proudest moment.

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