Senior Sports Editor
BUTLER MASANGO’S death has cast the spotlight on a forgotten Golden Generation of Young Warriors, who went toe-to-toe with the world’s best team.
They took on the Nigerian Dream Team, just months before their historic ’96 Olympic Games triumph, and even came out of the battle with some credit.
This year, the football world is celebrating the Silver Jubilee, of that landmark adventure, dubbed the Miracle of Atlanta, where the Nigerians beat powerhouses Brazil and Argentina, to take home gold medals.
And, it has taken all those 25 years, and the death of a member of those Young Warriors, for the real quality of that collection of Zimbabwean youth internationals, to be appreciated.
For some time, between 1995 and 1996, those Young Warriors can claim to have been one of the best three African teams, with the Nigerians and the Egyptians, completing the three-team club.
The 47-year-old Masango, who died in Johannesburg this week, was part of the Zimbabwe Under-23 side who found themselves within just two matches, from a place at the ’96 Olympics.
They didn’t clear the final hurdle, erected by the All-Star Nigerian side, going down 0-2 on aggregate, after losing both legs, by an identical 0-1 scoreline.
But, there was still a badge of honour for them to wear, even in defeat, because it eventually took the best team in the world, to destroy their Olympics dream.
After crushing Malawi 4-0, in the first round, they beat Zambia 3-2 on aggregate, spiced by an impressive 2-1 victory in Lusaka, to book their date against the Nigerians.
And, on March 3, 1996, an estimated 30 000 fans packed Rufaro to watch their heroes take on the Nigerian superstars, who included 11 players based in Europe, in the first leg of the final qualifier.
Methembe Ndlovu came of age that afternoon, with a vintage midfield show, which caught the eye.
But, his team, which featured Masango, Muzondiwa Mugadza, Vusi Laher, Dumisani Mpofu, Chamu Musanhu, Alois Bunjira, Abel and Cain Muteji, Alex Munawa, Stewart Murisa, George Mbwando and Elasto Kapowezha Lungu, crashed to a 0-1 defeat to the West Africans.
Ironically, Masango had the best chance of the game, just before the break, taking the ball on his chest and shooting towards goal, only for Taribo West, to make a crucial block.
Swiss expatriate, Marc Duvillard, was in charge, in those Olympic qualifiers.
Six months earlier, most of those Young Warriors had also taken silver, at the All-Africa Games, after falling to Egypt, in the final.
They had beaten the North Africans in their group game.
In the semi-finals, the Egyptians had eliminated the Nigerians.
Ironically, the Young Warriors could have again faced the Egyptians, in that final Olympics qualifier, had the Nigerians not found a way to avoid elimination, in Cairo, in dramatic fashion. Having won the first leg 3-2, thanks to a double from star forward Nwankwo Kanu and a goal from Sunday Oliseh, the Nigerians were on their way out.
They trailed to a 13th minute goal from Mostafa Eman, in the second leg, in Cairo.
With the aggregate score tied at 3-3, and the Egyptians going through on the away goals rule, Kanu and his fellow superstars were on the verge of elimination.
Then, Victor Ikpeba struck a last-gasp goal, to tie the second leg 1-1, and give his team a 4-3 aggregate win.
That gave them a ticket for a date against Zimbabwe, in the final qualifier, for a place at the ’96 Olympics.
The Nigerians then went on to become the first African nation to win gold, in the football tournament, at the Olympics.
Some of their Olympic heroes were also part of the Super Eagles, as Nigeria featured at their first World Cup finals, in the United States in 1994.
They also won the AFCON title, the same year, and returned to the World Cup, in France, four years later.
Kanu was the hero of Nigeria’s dramatic 4-3 semi-final win over a star-studded Brazil, featuring some players who had won the ’94 World Cup, including Bebeto and Aldair.
Ronaldo, who would later transform himself into one of the greatest players of all-time, winning the FIFA World Player of the Year three times and two Ballon d’Or gongs, had also been part of that triumphant Brazilian side, at the ’94 World Cup.
However, he didn’t play in any of their matches but featured at the ’96 Olympics, scoring twice as Brazil thrashed Ghana 4-2, in the quarter-finals, with Bebeto also on target.
Rivaldo, Flavio Conceicao, Roberto Carlos, Dida, Juninho and Ze Maria were some of the Brazilian stars who also featured at the ’96 Olympics.
A memorable double from Kanu, in the final minute, and a golden goal winner, powered Nigeria to a 4-3 semi-final win over the Brazilians.
A Roberto Carlos own goal, and a strike from Victor Ikpeba, also helped Nigeria’s cause while Bebeto, and a brace from Conceicao, had thrust the Samba Boys into the lead. It was a monumental triumph for the Nigerians, against a team which was under the guidance of the great Mario Zagallo, one of the few men to win the World Cup both as a player and a coach.
In the final, on August 3, 1996, watched by 86 117 fans, goals by Celestine Babayaro, Daniel Amokachi and Amunike propelled Nigeria to a 3-2 win over Argentina, and the immortality that came with the Olympic gold medal.
Hernan Crespo and Claudio Lopez scored for Argentina whose squad included stars like Roberto Ayala, Javier Zanetti, Roberto Sensini, Ariel Ortega and Diego Simeone.
The Nigerian side, also, had their fair share of stars, led by Kanu, who won the UEFA Champions League, three FA Cup winners’ medals and was crowned African Player of the Year twice.
Then, there was the talented Jay Jay Okocha who, in 1998, became the most expensive African footballer in history, when he arrived at French giants Paris Saint-Germain, in a transfer deal worth around £14 million.
Oliseh, scorer of the stunning winner in Nigeria’s 3-2 victory over Spain, at the 1998 World Cup, West, who would play for both Inter and AC Milan and Wilson Oruma, were some of the stars of the Nigerian Dream Team at the ’96 Olympics.
“There was something in our spirit that made us realise that we going to win, although we didn’t know how,” West told BBC Sport.
“As soon as Argentina got the first goal, we were not discouraged. Amunike was able to give us the winning strike.
“My (gold) medal is in the bank overseas. It is something to show to my children.”