Sharuko On Saturday
FOR many fans, it was the day African football finally came of age.
This was our finest hour, the moment our beautiful game arrived on the gates of the palace where greatness resides.
The day world football started counting us as part of the family, acknowledging our transformation from being punching bags into a people who could now compete at the same level.
Roger Milla and his Indomitable Lions had provided the first signs that we were making progress, with a fairy-tale run at the ’90 World Cup finals in Italy.
Their adventure ended in the quarter-finals, where England needed two penalties by Gary Lineker to drag them from deficit to success, with a 3-2 victory.
But, six years later, at the ’96 Olympics in the United States, everything finally came together for Mother Africa as a group of fearless, and talented, Nigerians, found a way to triumph on the big stage.
In two unforgettable back-to-back matches against Brazil and Argentina, the Nigerians went toe-to-toe with two of the world’s biggest football brands, and emerged out of the bruising battles as the winners.
On July 31, 1996, in Athens, Georgia, Nigeria found themselves 3-2 down, when the clock struck the 90th minute mark.
Then, in that final minute of regulation time, Nwankwo Kanu scored, to make it 3-3, and take the game into the lottery of sudden death extra-time.
Just four minutes into that phase, where the team which scored won the game, Kanu struck again and Brazil were out of the tournament the world expected them to win, without even breaking sweat.
This wasn’t a Mickey Mouse Brazilian side but an All-Star team.
One which, in one way or the other, provided the stars who played some key roles in Brazil winning the ’94 World, coming second at the ’98 World Cup and success, once again, at the 2002 World Cup.
Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Bebeto, Roberto Carlos, Juninho, Ze Elias, Ze Maria, Aldair, Flavio Conceicao and Dida were all part of the ’96 Brazilian Olympics team.
Three days later, it even got better for Nigeria, in the final, when they beat Argentina 3-2 to become the first African side to be crowned Olympic football champions.
A massive crowd of 86 000 fans watched as Claudio Lopez gave Argentina an early lead, in the third minute, only for Celestine Babayaro to equalise in the 27th minute.
Hernan Crespo restored Argentina’s lead, from the penalty spot, in the 50th minute but Daniel Amokachi, known as the Bull, restored parity for the Nigerians, to make it 2-2, in the 74th minute.
Then, in the final minute, Emmanuel Amunike, who scored the winning goal for the Super Eagles in ’94 AFCON final, grabbed the winner against Argentina.
That Argentine side featured the likes of Javier Zanetti, Roberto Sensini, Roberto Ayala, Diego Simeone, Ariel Ortega, Matias Almeyda and Crespo.
Last year, Nigeria football, in particular, and African football, in general, marked the Silver Jubilee of that iconic moment when the continent’s number one sport came of age in the American sunshine in 1996.
Exactly 26 years after their heroics, the impact which the Class of ’96 made, is still being felt and all of them remain immortal.
The names of Taribo West, Tijani Babangida, Wilson Oruma, Victor Ikpeba, Garba Lawal, Sunday Oliseh, Amokachi, Babayaro, Kanu, Amunike and, of course, Jay Jay Okocha are written in gold.
They have become legends not only in Nigeria but across the continent.
And, their beautiful story — 25 years from now — will still be told to new audiences who will be charmed, just as we have done over the last quarter-of-a-century, about how these magicians did it.
THE TWO KEY STARS WE LOST
But, what is rarely talked about is how a vintage crop of Young Warriors went toe-to-toe with this All-Star Nigerian side and, despite being eliminated, charmed the continent with their amazing fighting spirit.
That, had fate not conspired against them, where they ended up meeting the best team in the world, in the final qualifying round, our Young Warriors would probably have made it to the ’96 Olympics.
Had they ended up being drawn against Ghana and Morocco, the other two African teams which qualified for the jamboree, and not against Nigeria, our Young Warriors would probably have made it to the ’96 Olympics.
Football is about statistics and the facts and figures tell a huge story.
The Young Warriors were beaten 0-1 at Rufaro and lost by a similar margin in Nigeria for an aggregate 0-2 defeat.
Yes, if you consider that the Kenyans were hammered 0-3 in Nairobi, by the same opponents, in the earlier round of the qualifiers.
That, Egypt — winners of the ’95 All-Africa Games when they beat the Young Warriors in the final in Harare – conceded FOUR goals, against the same opponents, in an earlier round of the qualifiers.
And, that a star-studded Brazil, with Dida as their goalkeeper, conceded FOUR goals, including THREE in 15 minutes, against the same opponents, in the semi-finals of the battle for Olympic gold in ’96.
The same Dida who would go on to stay 10 years at AC Milan, where he clocked over 300 appearances, winning two Champions League titles, including one in which he saved three penalties, against Juventus, in 2003.
The same Dida who holds the record as the most successful player in the history of the FIFA Confederations Cup.
To imagine that the same rampant Nigerians struggled to score just two goals, against our Young Warriors, over THREE hours, split between 90 minutes in Harare and 90 minutes in Nigeria, highlights both the quality and strength of our boys.
Of course, we had a very good team, one which thrashed Malawi 4-0 in the first round of the qualifiers and went to Lusaka, and beat Zambia 2-1, in their backyard.
And, it’s possible, we could also probably have beaten the All-Star Nigeria side if we had gone into that game with all the players, who had been serving our cause, in the earlier rounds.
The reality is that we went into that match without two of our stars, who were dropped from the first leg at Rufaro, because of questions over their ages.
A glimpse into their age records had shown that there were inconsistencies, in terms of when they were born, with their registration papers at the PSL, showing different ages.
Some of the records showed that they were not eligible to feature for the Olympics team, because of the age restrictions, which showed that they were beyond the age barrier for such a tournament.
The other set of records showed that, in subsequent registrations, which came after they had already made names for themselves, they now fitted into the age group, since they were presumably younger.
It was a very highly emotive subject, when the story broke out, with one group arguing whether it was necessary, to weaken ourselves, given the huge stakes on hand, where victory would take us to the Promised Land of the Olympics?
We could cheat our way, this group argued because, after all, even our opponents were cheating and, in particular, they argued, Kanu didn’t look like someone who was still under 23 years.
Others, though, argued differently and said there was no honour in us qualifying, if we were not playing according to the rules of the competition, and rather than toast a success built on cheating, they would rather deal with failure based on honesty.
That our opponents, including the Nigerians, were probably cheating, they argued, did not make it right and should not induce us to embrace such dark arts, just for the sake of a fling at the Olympics, and we would rather not be there than ride on forgery.
In the end, those who were fighting in the corner to preserve our innocence, rather than embrace the darkness that came with cheating our way to success, won the debate and our two stars were withdrawn from the match.
No one knows what would have happened had they played but it’s fair to suggest they would have made a big difference, especially in terms of our attack, and we probably would have shocked the All-Star Nigerians.
Had we climbed that ladder, it’s also very likely we would have gone all the way, and won the Olympics gold medal because, if we could run the Nigerians that close, who can deny that we could have been a success story in the United States?
It’s like the Dream Team, they never lost a game against Zambia, either in Lusaka or Harare, in the qualifiers for the ’94 Nations Cup.
The showdown in Lusaka ended in a draw and so did the showdown in Harare, where Henry McKop’s effort, to kill off the contest, somehow ended up kissing the upright, rather than finding the target.
And, in the final 11 minutes, Kalusha Bwalya, for the first time in his career in a Zambian shirt, scored a header to salvage a draw and the point they needed to qualify for the ’94 AFCON finals.
Once they arrived at that tournament, the Zambians were unplayable and went all the way to the final where only a Nigerian comeback, in a 2-1 win for the Super Eagles, prevented Chipolopolo from winning the tourney.
It’s the same Chipolopolo team which finished third, at the ’96 AFCON finals, as if to remind us, if we ever needed an explanation, of how strong our Dream Team was.
No one will ever know what our boys would have done, had they featured at the ’94 AFCON finals, but — given what the Zambians did — it’s easy to get a rough idea of how far we would have gone.
THERE IS MORE TO THIS THAN POOR DYLAN
This week, the beast called age-cheating reared its ugly head again in our football after the embarrassment which followed Dynamos’ expulsion from the inaugural Marvelous Nakamba youth tournament.
The Glamour Boys’ foolish decision to somehow prioritise results, to such an extent they ended up trying to cheat their way to success, was a shocker given their profile and the leadership expected from them.
Whoever told them that this was about winning, rather than developing the next batch of their teenage stars, is as foolish as those who adopted his recipe, borrowed from hell, to be part of the manual used at the Glamour Boys.
Maybe that’s what happens when you spend eight years without winning anything, you end up trying to even cheat your way to win a youth tournament.
They should actually consider themselves lucky that their flagship sponsors, Sakunda Holdings, didn’t end up raising the red flag that, by extension, their good name was being dragged into controversy, by the actions of some officials, who wanted Dynamos to cheat their way towards winning the youth tourney.
They couldn’t have chosen the worst occasion, given this was supposed to be a celebration of a great move by one of our boys, to invest his hard-earned money into a tournament, hoping to help the next generation of our players.
Because of Nakamba’s name, it meant that the tournament got an international appeal and now, rather than the success, which was there for everyone to see, the headlines were about the controversy generated by the cheating.
Dynamos owe Nakamba an apology, written in gold letters, for what happened and a promise that, in future, such nonsense will not be part of such a noble exercise.
They would also do well to ensure that some of the people, who were involved in the process, are shown the exit, at least to give domestic football an assurance that corrective measures have been implemented.
But, to deal with this issue in isolation would be something like trying to cure cancer with Cafenol because the reality is that this is something which runs very deep in our game.
This is not about Dylan Gumbe, he is just a small boy who was used by some foolish officials to try and beat the system, and he is not the only one around.
His only crime is that he was caught and others, including many who have even shed FIVE years from their real birth records, are still flying around and giving an impression that they are squeaky clean.
Two years ago, the Young Warriors and their Botswana counterparts, were kicked out of the COSAFA Under-17 tournament in shame, over an age-cheating scandal.
In the same week the scandal exploded, the Botswana FA suspended their CEO Mofolo Mofolo, over the issue, while ZIFA have been fighting, for the last two years, to keep Joseph Mamutse in office.
That alone tells you that Dylan Gumbe is a small fish in a huge toxic pond.
Just after the Young Warriors were expelled, ZIFA released a lengthy statement claiming they were probing the matter and a report would be released to the public once their investigations were complete.
Two years later, nothing — no investigation, no report — was done.
We have even been forced to bury players who carry their brothers’ names, all because they changed their identities, in the process when they were transforming themselves into younger versions of themselves.
When Moses Chunga took a proper team to the COSAFA Under-17 team in Mauritius in 2017, we all attacked him because his boys were thrashed 0-5 by Malawi, beaten 0-1 by Mauritius and 1-2 by Botswana.
We demanded that he be sacked, even though it was clear he had invested in the future, and his boys were playing against men who probably had left families back home in their countries.
Today, many of his boys are playing in the domestic Premiership, Callum English-Brown is at WhaWha, Tino Benza is the main forward at Herentals, to name but a few.
Those who won awards at the same tournament, for their countries, have largely disappeared from the scene because, in Mauritius, they were already at their peak.
To try and suggest that age-cheating started with Dylan Gumbe, and to turn him into the face of this, will be very unfair.
And, we all know that.
Our biggest challenge in football is we don’t want to accept who we really are – A BUNCH OF HYPOCRITES.
To God Be The Glory!
Peace to the GEPA Chief, the Big Fish, George Norton, Daily Service, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and all the Chakariboys still in the struggle.
Come on United!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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