It has been 60 years to the day since Nigeria gained independence from Great Britain, so on this Independence Day we look back at the African giant’s sporting triumphs.
‘Naija’ has had plenty of opportunities to establish a foothold in global sport, and while it has not always been as successful as expected, a country of nearly 200 million peoplehas had plenty to celebrate.
Here are six of the best.
1. Gold in Atlanta
By far the most seminal moment in Nigeria’s sporting history has got to be winning the Olympic gold medal in football in 1996.
The Olympics are the pinnacle of competition for any athlete, and football is Nigeria’s major sport. In addition, the Olympic football tournament is just one tier below the FIFA World Cup as the most prestigious global tournament.
So when Nwankwo Kanu led a team of talented young Nigerians to the USA in 1996, expectations were high for the team that had been nicknamed the “Dream Team” for the quality of the squad.
It was composed of players who had excelled at the World Cup two years earlier, in addition to the best talent from the Under 17 World Cup-winning squad of 1993.
A forgettable group phase, where the Nigerians, along with two others [Brazil and Japan] finished on six points each and needed to be separated by goals difference, was followed by a convincing 2-0 win over Mexico in the quarter finals.
And that was when the magic started. Brazil, who the Nigerians had lost to in the group phase, were the semifinal opposition. After trailing 3-1 to a team that included World Cup winner Bebeto and the emerging phenomenon Ronaldo da Lima, the Dream Team stormed back to tie the game 3-3 and then won it in the most dramatic circumstances, with Kanu himself scoring the Golden Goal in extra time.
The final was even more magical. Argentina, again chock full of stars, including Hernan Crespo, Ariel Ortega, Diego Simeone, and Claudio Lopez, raced to a 2-1 lead. But Daniel Amokachi tied things up with about a quarter of an hour left to play, and Emmnuel Amunike snatched the winner in stoppage time.
Nigeria had won Africa’s first Olympic gold medal in football, sparking celebrations across the country and continent.
2. Chioma Ajunwa’s long jump gold medal
Multi-talented Chioma Ajunwa and her Olympic gold medal jump occupy a special place in Nigerian sporting history.
When she won that long jump gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, she became the first Nigerian, and first Black African woman, to win Olympic gold in a field event. She is also the first, and so far only, person to have been at a FIFA World Cup and also the Olympic Games for three different sports [football, long jump, 100m].
While her accomplishment was somewhat overshadowed by the men’s football team winning their own gold medal a few days later, it in no way detracts from her historic efforts.
And to think that Ajunwa did not even realize that she had been entered for the long jump until she got to Atlanta.
She’d played football with the Super Falcons, part of the squad at the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991.
But she then crossed over to athletics, hoping to win a medal in the 100m. Ajunwa travelled to Atlanta unheralded and trailed by the stain of a drug ban.
But Nigeria legend Segun Odegbami, himself a former Olympian, had taken her under his wing, invested in her training and appeared to be the only one who believed in her ability to cause a stir.
Ajunwa missed the 100m Final by a whisker after finishing tied for fourth, but eliminated in a photo finish.
And so she was entered into the long jump with next to no expectations upon her. Her qualifying jump was an impressive 6.81m to place second, and into the Final.
In the Final the next day, she looked like she had ice in her veins and her very first jump was a soaring 7.12m, an unexpectedly high benchmark to beat. Neither her, nor any of her rivals could match it, and Ajunwa had won Nigeria’s first Olympic gold medal and Africa’s first in a field event.
3. Dick Tiger’s world title win
In August 1963, Nigeria hosted the first ever boxing world title event on the continent outside of the then-apartheid South Africa.
It was the last of a trilogy of fights between Nigeria’s Richard “Dick Tiger” Ihetu and Gene Fullman, the man from whom he had snatched the crown almost a year earlier.
A country that was recovering from the devastating effects of a civil war, united in support of their own, as he sought to defend his title for a second time against the same man.
Tiger had earned the right to challenge Fullmer, the then-WBA middleweight champion, after making short work of Florentino Fernandez via a devastating knockout before claiming a win via decision against Henry Hank.
Those two fights were his ticket into the American boxing scene after years fighting in Nigeria, and then in England where he had won the British Commonwealth middleweight title.
In the first of the trilogy, Tiger won a gruelling decision against the champion, counterpunching aggressively against a dynamic brawler with a seemingly endless ability to absorb punishment.
At the end of a draining and bloody 15 rounds, Tiger won the decision to become world champion, Nigeria and Africa’s first ever boxing world champion.
Four months later, they were back in the ring for a rematch. Another punishing encounter ended in a draw. Dick Tiger kept his belt and set up a decider, which was taken to Nigeria.
Fullmer’s two fights against Dick Tiger had made him a household name in Nigeria despite his defeat, and he was given a rousing welcome as he made his ring walk.
But the electric atmosphere at the Liberty Stadium in Ibadan was all for the local lad, who then proceeded to dominate his adversary in a performance that left no doubt who the best man was. By the end of round seven, Fullman’s corner had had enough and beckoned to the referee to call the fight.
As the referee raised Tiger’s hands in victory, instant pandemonium broke out in the stadium that took about half an hour for police to clear.
Fullman retired after that fight, Dick Tiger went on to defend his title, moved on to light heavyweight and became the first of only two Africans [Ghana’s Azumah Nelson the other] to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
4. Silver to gold in the 4×400 relay
In 2012, Nigeria’s 4x400m relay team were awarded the Olympic gold medal for a race they had run 12 years earlier in Sydney, Australia.
Few could argue that they deserved it, after American Antonio Pettigrew’s confession of having used performance-enhancing drugs led to the disqualification of Team USA, who had won the initial gold medal.
But it was not so much about the medal, but the nerve tingling final leg of the race anchored by youngster Enefiok Udobong that seared the memory of that moment in the hearts of Nigerians forever.
Going into the final leg, Nigeria were in fourth place behind the USA, the Bahamas and Jamaica as captain Sunday Bada handed the baton to Udobong, an 18-year-old who was competing outside Africa for the first time.
Udobong took the baton, and streaked off on what was to be a race for the ages. Running with experience beyond his years, Udobong took the inner lane, and started to gain on the runners ahead of him.
Watching at home, Nigerians could almost feel the effort as he strained every sinew, flew past the Bahamian, and then, almost at the last, stretched his way past the Jamaican.
All of a sudden, from no-hopers, the Nigerians had claimed silver. It proved to be the high point of those Games for Nigeria, and an inspiration for generations to come.
5. African Nations Cup win in 1980
Despite being generally accepted as one of Africa’s more talented sides, Nigeria had not won the Nations Cup [now called the Africa Cup of Nations] prior to 1980.
In 1977, two Nigerian club sides, Enugu Rangers and IICC Shooting Stars, competed against each other in the CAF Cup Winners Cup semifinals, bringing the country to a standstill with a parade of some of the best players on the continent.
Still, the national team, which featured many of those same players, did not win the premier African title. All of that was to change three years later.
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With a combination of the players from those rival clubs, Nigeria hosted the tournament with the clear goal of proving they were Africa’s best team.
By the time the final rolled around, the Green Eagles routed Algeria 3-0 to claim their first ever African title, with players like Segun Odegbami, Adokiye Amiesimaka, Christian Chukwu, Emmanuel Okala, Musa Lawal, Aloysius Atuegbu, and more becoming household names.
That title win catapulted Nigeria from also rans to one of the elites on the continent and set the stage for future teams to earn respect. They won the title again in 1994 and 2013.
6. Under 17 World Championship title
While the 1980 Nations Cup win put Nigeria on the path to respect on the continent, the first global football triumph of note happened five years later, in faraway China.
There, a group of schoolboys, who had left the country with little fanfare, proceeded to play some scintillating football and ended up winning the inaugural FIFA Under 17 World Championship, beating Germany 2-0 in the final.
It was a life changing moment, not just for those players, but for the country and the continent as a whole.
Nigeria would go on to win four more Under 16 world titles, including back to back in 2013 and 2015, and have been runners up three times as well.