Nigeria is one of the most successful nations in footballing terms in Africa, also an economic and political giant in the continent.
Over the years the West African nation have proven her prowess in local, continental, and international tournaments at all age levels.
However, like every other country, there was a time when Nigerian football took a nose dive. But sadly, it came at a time when the senior national team was playing the best football. Nigeria football suffered a major setback as politics collided with the game.
Two of the biggest political heavy weights in Africa were not best of friends at that time. The late General Sani Abacha of Nigeria and his South African counterpart late Nelson Mandela.
The diplomatic ties between both nations became sour owing to Gen Abacha’s execution of environmentalist, Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other activists which raised eyebrows from the international community, one of which was South Africa.
Ironically, the rainbow nation were the hosts of the 1996 edition of the Nations Cup, but the Nigerian military dictator made it clear to the players that they would not be participating in the soccer fiesta hosted by their political rival.
Although, reports in some quarters had it that the military ruler was concerned with the safety of the defending champions as regards the ongoing conflict between the two power houses of the continent, that was why he ordered the Nigerian contingents to boycott the championships.
But words on the street had it that Abacha was livid after South Africa withdrew its invitation to Nigeria to honour Nelson Mandela in a four-nation tournament prior to the 1996 Nations cup. It was gathered that South Africa withdrew its invitation to Nigeria after the world had sanctioned the Nigerian government due to Abacha's complicated style of leadership.
Till today, many believe Abacha's last minute order to boycott the 96' Nations cup killed the spark of the golden generation.
And as a result of the crisis in the team and the nation at large, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) slammed a four-year ban on Nigeria which exempted the Super Eagles from defending their African title they had won in Tunisia 94’.
Mutiu Adepoju, who was an integral member of that squad spoke exclusively to NAIJ.com.
He related the pains of not defending the trophy they deservedly won.
“It was so sad because we were prepared and determined to defend the title.
“We were in high spirit in camp and the news broke, we all felt sad and disappointed.
“It took most of us time to overcome the heartbreak. To some of us, it remains the biggest regret of our careers,” he said.
The Super Eagles were out of action in two consecutive Africa Cup of Nations tournaments; the 1996 and 1998 editions play hosted by South Africa and Burkina Faso respectively.
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Within the space of these four years, the certain rise of Nigerian football experienced a certain decline because there was lack of competitive games at senior level.
Many believed the formation of players from 1994 to 1998 had emerged as the golden generation of Nigerian football, and would have put the country on the world map, if they had defended their AFCON title in 1996 and participated at the 1998 competition.
Kanu Nwankwo, Celestine Babayaro, Wilson Oruma and Mobi Oparaku were extracted from the triumphant Golden Eaglets squad that won the U-17 World Cup in Japan 93’.
In that same year, another new kid on the block was discovered when the Flying Eagles participated in the African qualifiers for a U-20 World Cup ticket in Mauritius where Jay Jay Okocha shone like a star.
Before the 1994 World Cup in the United States, the Super Eagles were ranked fifth in the world and going into the tournament as newly crowned African Champions in Tunisia; their second title in 14 years after they won it on home soil in 1980.
New entrants, like Daniel Amokachi, Emmanuel Amunike, Sunday Oliseh, Taribo West and former Calabar Rovers winger, Finidi George all cemented their place in the Super Eagles under the tutelage of Clemens Westerhof who helped the team qualify for the World Cup in the United States.
The team also had players who had already established themselves as experienced members of the team which includes; Rasheed Yekini, Samson Siasia, Uche Okechukwu, Mutiu Adepoju, Peter Rufai, Ben Iroha and the likes, also helped the team win their group over highly favored Argentina and Bulgaria at the World Cup.
The team lost out in the round of 16 to Italy but were ranked ninth overall out of the participating 32 teams.
A mixture of youth and experience further went on to clinch Nigeria’s and Africa’s first Gold medal in the Men’s Football event at the Atlanta 96’ Olympics Games.
The same crop of players from the U-17, U-20 squad with some of the outstanding senior players that did well at the World Cup in 94’ were among the team that miraculously wrote Nigeria’s name in the history books in 1996.
The Super Eagles went on to qualify for their second consecutive World Cup with a more established team that was molded into a master class but did not have a taste of two AFCON competitions.
The Bora Milutinovic led squad of France 98’ surpassed the group phase ahead of favorites Spain, and South American power house, Paraguay but eventually crashed out in the knock out stages of the world’s biggest soccer fiesta.
All of these players made their mark professionally for their respective clubs and wearing the Green and White colors for Nigeria.
Kanu and Okocha who are the most decorated players at that period have become household names in Nigerian football as both players have carried the banner for the national teams at different stages in their careers.
However, 23 years after, Nigerians have shifted attention to the present Super Eagles team as some have tipped the squad to become the new golden generation because the nation has never had it this easy during the World Cup qualifiers.
Despite playing in the group-of-death which comprises Algeria, Cameroon and Zambia, the Mikel Obi led Eagles have been impressive so far in the qualifying campaign.
The likes of Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Odion Ighalo, Victor Moses, Leon Balogun and the rest have been blended together by Genot Rohr taking the national team back to where it was with their world class display.
With just two matches left to play, Nigeria sits comfortably with 10 points in Group B and will need just a win in their remaining two games to clinch the ticket to Russia 2018 World Cup.
Meanwhile, NAIJ.com asked Nigerians if the Super Eagles are always better than the Indomitable Lions. Watch video below.