When funding issues meant Nigeria’s men’s football team was stranded in Atlanta on the eve of the Olympics, even making it to its opening match appeared a tall order. The idea that the team could actually prosper in the event looked to have already been extinguish by the sort of administration woes that have hobbled the country’s progress on the football field for far too long. Yet, improbably, the Super Eagles now stand a win over Germany in Wednesday’s semifinals away from being guaranteed at least a silver medal.
It is quite the contrast. Off the field, the Nigerian team’s Olympics have been nothing short of a disaster. Its plane arrived in Manaus for its opening game against Japan only hours before kickoff, after the airline supposed to charter a flight from Atlanta failed to get paid by the country’s sports ministry.
Nigeria somehow won that game 5-4 and made its way through the group stage, but more problems arose ahead of its quarterfinal against Denmark when players refused to turn up for a training session after a pay dispute. Hearing of the financial woes, a Japanese plastic surgeon has even offered to pay each member of the squad $30,000 if they take home the gold medal.
Still, that promise did not prevent Nigeria from sending its two alternate players – Stanley Dimgba and Yusuf Mohammed – as well as three team officials home ahead of the semifinals in order to reduce costs. Yet, despite its country’s authorities seemingly doing everything possible to undermine its chances, Nigeria has continued to do the business on the pitch against far better prepared teams.
Twenty years after Nigeria’s greatest football moment, it is now eyeing further Olympic glory. Perhaps even the fact that the team’s plane was stranded in Atlanta of all places proved to be an omen for what has followed. It was, after all, the American city which hosted the 1996 Olympics and where Nigeria beat Brazil 4-3 in the semifinals in perhaps the greatest Olympic soccer match of recent times, before defeating Argentina in the final.
That side included a startling array of talent, including Jay Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, Daniel Amokachi, Taribo West and more. And it was that team that had a pivotal impact on the captain of the 2016 Olympic team, John Obi Mikel.
“Watching Nigeria beat Brazil in the semifinal and then Argentina in the final really inspired me,” the Chelsea midfielder told the London Evening Standard last month. “I was just kicking a football around for fun back then in the streets. But after seeing Nigeria win the gold medal, I changed.”
Mikel may have scored just one Premier League goal in 247 appearances, but he found the net as Nigeria beat Denmark 2-0 in the quarterfinals. And it is Mikel who is the undoubted star of a 2016 Olympic team that doesn’t have the star power of the 1996 version but has produced some thrilling play in Brazil.
But, in Germany, Nigeria will be going up against a team that has also provided plenty of entertainment. Germany has scored 19 goals in its four Olympic matches, a remarkable tally even if 10 of those did come against minnows Fiji.
Serge Gnabry, alone, is responsible for six of those and has been the outstanding player for Germany ever since coming off the bench in the team’s opening game to help salvage a draw against Mexico. And the 21-year-old was on target once again in the quarterfinals, opening the scoring as his side beat Portugal by a surprisingly emphatic 4-0 margin. Gnabry will hope that his form in the Olympics will earn him a first-team opportunity when he returns to his club, Arsenal. But before that he can endear himself to Arsenal supporters by getting once over Chelsea rival, Mikel.
Prediction: It promises to be a thrilling contest in Sao Paulo between the two most entertaining sides in the competition. Much could come down to which side is more clinical in front of goal, but Germany’s greater high-level experience may just carry it through the final.
Predicted Score: Germany 3-2 Nigeria
Kickoff Time: 3 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: NBCSN
Live Stream: NBCOlympics.com