‘People were going crazy’: How Super Eagles conquered the world | Nigerian national football team – Studio Varam

‘People were going crazy’: How Super Eagles conquered the world | Nigerian national football team

YoIt may have been over 25 years since Celestine Babayaro was part of the Nigerian men’s soccer team that made history by winning a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta as a teenager, but the former Chelsea and Newcastle defender he still retains his youthful exuberance when he played. remember that moment.

“As soon as we landed, we felt like 200 million people were there to celebrate,” recalls the 44-year-old at the end of a new documentary, Super Eagles 96, which tells the story of his remarkable achievement. “There was a lot of happiness in Nigeria: people were going crazy in the streets. That tournament made a big difference.”

Directed by Yemi Bamiro, a London-born filmmaker of Nigerian descent, the documentary traces Nigeria’s progress under coach Clemens Westerhof, known as the “Dutchgerian”, on their way to the 1994 World Cup before being replaced by his compatriot Jo. Bonfrère during a period of political instability under the country’s military dictatorship.

Nigeria's match winner Emmanuel Amunike kisses his gold medal in Atlanta.
Nigeria’s match winner Emmanuel Amunike kisses his gold medal in Atlanta. Photography: Popperfoto//BTS

It also features interviews with some of Babayaro’s teammates, including Taribo West, Jay-Jay Okocha and Emmanuel Amunike, scorer of the game-winning goal in the Olympic final against an Argentina team featuring Diego Simeone and Hernán Crespo. There’s also a killer soundtrack.

“We started thinking about music very early in the process and I had a dream to use a lot of authentic Nigerian music and specifically Fela Kuti,” Bamiro tells The Guardian. “We reached out to Fela’s estate and they were really interested in the film, so they let us use five songs, which was kind of awesome. I really didn’t expect that.”

However, it is an appearance by Noo Saro-Wiwa, the daughter of activist and Nobel peace prize nominee Ken Saro-Wiwa, that leaves the most lasting impression. The execution of his father in 1995 by the regime of General Sani Abacha, after he spoke out about oil contamination in Nigeria, ostracized Nigeria from the international community, leading to the country’s withdrawal from the African Cup. of Nations in 1996 in South Africa.

“It was very important to have Noo in the story because the case was central to Nigeria getting this unwanted global attention at the time,” says Bamiro. “We had to connect it because I always thought that Ken Saro-Wiwa couldn’t be a footnote or a paragraph in our movie. That was the most nervous she had ever been in an interview because we were asking her to talk about what happened when she was just a teenager and she got a phone call to tell her about this horrible thing that had happened to her father. She was so brave and eloquent in giving us a little insight into what that must have been like. She is a brave and courageous woman ”.

Noo Saro-Wiwa, daughter of human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa
Noo Saro-Wiwa, daughter of human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed in Nigeria in 1995. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Despite receiving funding directly from Abacha when they reached the second round of the 1994 World Cup in the US, the Nigerian team stayed in a $10-a-night motel two years later. However, they shocked the world by coming back from a group stage defeat against a star-studded Brazil that included Ronaldo and Juninho and a 3-1 semi-final deficit against the same opponents thanks to a golden goal in the extension of a new -faced Nwankwo Kanu.

“We were crammed into a room,” recalls West, who had spells in Derby and Plymouth, in the film. “Two slept in a bed, others slept on the floor. After two hours, we would change. It was crazy. But only football could take the weight off this problem. What unites Nigerians is football.”

Watching from his home in south London as they became the first African team to win a world tournament by beating Argentina 3-2 in the final in August 1996, Bamiro always wanted to explain what the win had meant to him. Nigeria.

“I was 13 years old when this happened and I remember feeling a deep sense of pride,” he says. “I was in awe of this group of young people who had achieved what they did on the world stage. I went back to school after summer vacation ended and I remember feeling like he boy. In South London there was a friendly rivalry between the West African kids and the Caribbean kids over who was the coolest and stuff, and I just remember it was a huge credit to us that Nigeria had made it.

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“I wanted to take that feeling and put it back in the movie; there was no science to it. The entry point was if she could channel what she was feeling as a 13-year-old, then we should start there.”

A still image showing fans celebrating in the Super Eagles 96 documentary.
A still image showing fans celebrating in the Super Eagles 96 documentary. Photography: brochure

Three countries – Kenya, Zambia and Cameroon – declared national holidays when Nigeria’s players were welcomed home from Atlanta as heroes, though Bamiro acknowledges that Abacha was also one of the main beneficiaries of their success. “His government was doing all these egregious things in terms of human rights abuses and then all of a sudden the focus was on this joyous group of brothers who had made history,” he says. “It was a convenient distraction for the military government that this team was able to accomplish what it did. By winning the gold, they inadvertently forgave the military dictatorship.”

But it’s still moving to hear Noo Saro-Wiwa’s fond memories of an achievement that remains close to the hearts of Nigerians to this day. “Everything about Nigeria was really down, so to see Nigerians smiling and laughing and celebrating, I haven’t seen that in a long time,” he recalls. “We were the center of the universe, we were turning heads but for the right reasons and that was amazing.”

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