Mobi Oparaku has exclusively revealed to Completesports.com that he deposited his 1996 Atlanta Olympic gold medal in a bank for for safekeeping because he treasured it so much.
24 years ago, in Atlanta Georgia, Nigeria entered the records book as the first African nation to win the men’s football event in the Olympic Games following a dramatic 3-2 win against Argentina in the epic final.
Oparaku, now Team Manager of Heartland, a Nigeria Professional Football League, NPFL, side said he did so for his kids and future generations, especially those who cared to have a feel of it.
Reflecting on the success of the U23 Olympic team otherwise tagged Dream Team 1 in the tournament, the former Nigeria defender disclosed that given their level of preparation going into the tournament, their triumph did not come as a surprise.
“After our qualification for the Olympic Games in 1996, we were camped in Enugu, Nike Lake Hotel to be precise for our preseason tournament preparation,” said Oparaku, a former wing-back.
“Willy Bazuaye (now late) was the chief coach but Bonfrere Jo Was The technical adviser. We had a wonderful but strenuous preparation.
“Team bonding was excellent. Technically, tactically we were ready to go. Bonfrere would explain to each player, what his role on the pitch is. Even when you are on the bench, you already know that you might come in at any moment and what you would do once you come in.
“Discipline was at its highest level. We had no margin for errors because we know there wasn’t going to be another opportunity for us to play in the Olympic Games Soccer we were all determined to make the best of the opportunity.
“We left Enugu for Lagos where we spent two days before traveling to Atlanta, USA, for the tournament. I remember we were airlifted by British Airline to London Andrews to Florida, USA, for the Olympic Games”.
Oparakui disclosed that after the famous 4-3 defeat of Brazil in the semi final via the golden goal scored by team captain, Nwankwo Kanu, they began to ‘smell’ the gold medal.
“We lost to Brazil in our group game. So when we got to meet them again in the semis, we knew it was going to be tough,” he said.
“During our preseason match discussion, Bonfrere told us a bit of adjustment in our game plan. He told us that if we stick to it, victory would come.
“Particularly, he charged us that it would be in our best interest to ensure that we Avenged that earlier defeat. He also reminded us that the Brazilians would be banking on psychological advantage but we mustn’t fall for it.
“We got the message and tactical shift but before we could settle down or properly adjust, they had taken the lead.
“But when we got back to our stride, we rolled up our sleeves and put our engine on, they realised they were up against a different, a recharged Nigeria Dream Team”.
The Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games Was The first tournament the ‘golden goal’ rule was experimented and Nigeria benefitted hugely.
Thereafter, FIFA cancelled it just as Was The kick in’ experimented in 1993 FIFA U17 World Cup in Japan. In Japan then, Golden Eaglets harvested a number of goals through the ‘kick in’ instead of throw-in and went all the way to win the tournament.
“We went into extra time (against Brazil) but we were cautious not to concede because if we do at this point, we were automaticcontinued,” Oparaku continued.
“Those of us at the back, Uche Okechukwu, Taribo West, myself, ensured there was no moment of concentration lapses. We kept awake like the rat and confident that our attackers can exploit any situation upfront. At least, they shouldn’t score us even if we don’t score them.
“But the moment Kanu latched unto that ball and scored, we found ourselves in cloud 9. We realized that we were through to the final. It was a fantastic moment for us because we have gotten our revenge over Brazil”.
The Dream Team were up next against another South American and World football power, Argentina, in the final.
Oparaku recalled: “Like in the game against Brazil, we had to come from behind to win 3-2 against Argentina, in the final. It was like we were in a dream. Amuneke needed to tap in from the free kick after Argentine rushed out, trying to set an off side trap. They forgot the ball in flight rule and we became Olympic Champions”.
As would be expected, the triumphant Dream Team 1 players were handsomely rewarded by Nigeria and State governments as well corporate bodies.
Oparaku added: “We were promised land and I got mine. We were promised that streets be named after us by our state governments in the state capital but that I didn’t get. But I personally paid for a street to be named after me in Owerri and that’s the street I’m living now. My gold medal? It is in the bank. I kept it in the bank because I treasure it so much. I want my children and even whoever that cares in the future to see it”.
The Heartland Team Manager rated the present football in the country low, compared to their days back in the 1980s and ’90s.
“The game has gone down badly these days. Back in our days, it was high but now, no, no, no”, he frowned.
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