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Emmanuel Amuneke: Super Eagles’ forgotten flight

Winger Emmanuel Amuneke took Nigeria’s last touch at the 1995 FIFA Confederations Cup. “I’m like any other player; I’d like the game to end during the 90 minutes,” he told remembering, ruefully, his penalty miss that saw the star-studded Super Eagles finish fourth behind Mexico. “I felt bad about it, but you can’t predict penalties.”

Amuneke was Nigeria’s wizard on the wing. He drifted out left and had a knack for drawing defenders towards him, coaxing a foolish tackle like a bullfighter might. Then he’d poke the ball over the flailing man and burst down the touchline. He scored twice in Nigeria’s first-ever FIFA World Cup™ a year earlier in USA. “Sometimes a team, a generation, just comes out of the blue,” he said about that side that made the world take notice. “This was our golden generation. We had great players who couldn’t even get in the team because the competition for places was so fierce.”

Combining pace, power, technique, and a blessed improvisation, those Super Eagles of the 1990s were so potent, such a fresh breath on the world scene, that many predicted they would be the first African team to win a World Cup. When they arrived in Saudi Arabia for the Confederations Cup in 1995, then called the King Fahd Cup, the West African entertainers were fan favourites.

“They loved us in Saudi Arabia,” said Amuneke, who spent four seasons with Barcelona but was tragically unable to hold down a place due to a succession of knee injuries that eventually ended his career early. “The fans remembered the impact we made in USA in 1994 and we intrigued them. We were a big hit and, for us, it was a chance for that great generation to ride high again.”

Amuneke scored Nigeria’s first goal, four minutes into an eventual 3-0 hammering of Japan. They were unlucky not to beat an Argentina side that included Hernan Crespo, Ariel Ortega and Gabriel Batistuta in their second game. Argentina went through to the final thanks to a slim +1 goal difference and the Nigerians were forced to play for third place against Mexico – a game that finished 1-1 after extra-time. Everyone on both sides scored from the spot before reliable Amuneke stepped up for the fifth. “Someone has to miss,” he said, a smile in his voice. “That day it was me.”

Atlanta’s Golden goal
But there was still one more day in the sun for the high-flying Super Eagles of the 1990s, and one that ended with a gold medal. The Atlanta Olympic Games of 1996 will go down in the legend and lore of Nigerian football.

Amuneke was at the heart of the action again. “I was a team leader by then,” said the winger who now passes on his knowledge to a new generation as Nigeria’s U-17 coach. “We didn’t go there expecting to win gold, but as the tournament went on we grew in confidence.”

The team was a roll call of Nigerian legends, names any football fan in the country could rattle off by heart. You can hear the astonishment in Amuneke’s voice when he talks of his teammates. “We had Kanu, Okocha, Amokachi, Ikpeba. We’re talking about Taribo West and Uche Okechukwu. There’s too many greats to even name!”

The Nigerians scored 12 goals in six games and entertained with their vibrant football. It was only fitting that the decisive touch of the competition, a touch that stamped the name Nigeria in the annals of international football, came from the foot of Amuneke. The final, against Argentina was tied 2-2 in the 90th minute. Amuneke’s sizzling wing-play coaxed Roberto Ayala into a bad tackle. Wilson Oruma swung in the free-kick and Amuneke, holding firm in the face of a tight offside trap, swiveled to volley just inside the far post.

The goal was as good as gold and sparked huge celebrations on the pitch and back home, a world away, in Nigeria. But Amuneke, a man who’s had more setbacks than glory in his career, maintains a dignified perspective. “You have to accept the way you lose just like you accept the way you win.”

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