25th September 1993. The African Champions, Elephants of Ivory Coast rocked up to the National Stadium in Lagos knowing that a draw will get them the sole group ticket for the US based 1994 FIFA World Cup. They were confident, they had very good players.
Unfortunately for the Ivorians they were coming up against the best Nigerian team ever assembled. A team brimming with talented and physically powerful footballers who also believed that getting to the USA was their right.
To the younger generation, Nigeria at the World Cup is not a big deal. To the generation that followed the US ’94 qualifiers, getting to the World Cup was the Holy Grail.
This team assembled by Clemens Westerhof had given the country hope that this was the year.
It has to be said that for reasons only they could explain, the press at the time did not give the team much of a chance. The fans who came to the matches had belief though, they loved Westerhof as he always used to get a rousing ovation each time he came out of the tunnel before kick off.
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South Africa, Congo and Algeria had been despatched brutally. Only blemish was a defeat in Abidjan to these same Ivorians. A game in which careless finishing kept the 1st half scoreline down to only a vicious Yekini finish. The hosts rallied in the 2nd half to win 2-1 but they knew they were extremely lucky.
For the Lagos match, Nigeria had to win. Westerhof gambled big time. Ben Iroha captained the team as Stephen Keshi was not fit enough to start. Abdul Sule who played upfront as a striker for his club, Stationery Stores of Lagos played at right back. Thompson Oliha who had been banished since Algiers ’90 AFCON returned following a good spell with Africa Sports of Abidjan.
Oliha was partnered in central midfield by Mutiu Adepoju with Austin Okocha and Finidi George wide of them.
The plan was for Nigeria to squeeze up and press the visitors and stop them playing their passing game. With only 3 days of training it was a big gamble and 3 times in the first 10 mins the offside trap failed. How the normally efficient Joel Tiehi failed to convert any of the chances only he can explain.
Keeper Wilfred Agbonibvare made 2 stops while one effort went into the side netting. National stadium was in stunned agitated silence, Westerhof was screaming himself hoarse from the touchline.
This Nigerian team however were horrible to play against because, on the front foot, they were deadly. The Ivorians were made to pay for Tiehi’s misses. Findi George swung in a high hanging corner, Uche Okechukwu rose above all to nod down, Oliha reacted first and bundled home.
Within 15 mins it was 2. Finidi cut in from the right, swung in a cross which Yekini retrieved and passed to Okocha. Okocha held onto it long enough to play Adepoju in. Adepoju in turn flicked into Yekini’s path. The big striker took a touch and hit a low shot that rebounded off the foot of the post.
Yekini chased the rebound as did Amokachi, who got there first and scored with a sliding tackle on his team mate! 2 nil. Just like that, the match was taken away from Cote D’Ivoire. The stadium was rocking.
All game Okocha was wrecking what reputation full back Aka Kouame had. In the 2nd half the Eintracht Frankfurt based player decided to take it up a notch. Oliha nudged the ball wide to the number 10. He must have dribbled Kouame at least 3 times as he made his way towards goal. From the touchline, he gave the keeper the eyes and hit the ball with his left foot. It looked a certain goal instead it hit the inside of the far post and bounced back towards where it came from, into touch for a goalkick. The stadium shook with the fans hailing the twinkling feet of Okocha.
A penalty was awarded for handball to Nigeria. Yekini strolled up and stroked it home. Okocha was withdrawn of Amunike. Soon, Amokachi was releasing the Zamalek winger on that same left. Kouame was nowhere to be found – Okocha had worn him out. Amunike took a few strides forward before laying a simple cross into the path of the long striding Yekini. The big striker just tucked home easily, game over.
The Ivorians did grab a goal to make it 2-1 at a point but it turned out to be only a consolation. They had turned up hoping to get the point, had chances to go at least 2 nil up, fluffed their lines and ended up being well beaten.
At the final whistle the national stadium crowd kept on applauding the players as they left the pitch. Westerhof the last one to go into the tunnel stayed out a little longer walking to each end of the stadium taking in the appreciation of the crowd. He clapped them back too.
Meanwhile in Liverpool, a Premier League game was taking place. Norwich City the visitors at Goodison Park. Everton for some reason were struggling already in the season and they got properly thumped 5-1. A certain Efan Ekoku scored 4 of Norwich’s goals. By the end of that season, Ekoku had played and won an AFCON title and was in the Nigeria squad that went to US ’94.
On the same day, miles apart, scoring four goals but destined to eventually meet were the Super Eagles and Efangwa Ekoku.