This is the eighth of a 10-part series examining some of the best performances by the Super Eagles over the last two decades i.e. from January 1, 2001 to date, in no particular order.
This will strictly cover competitive internationals, so there is no place for, say, Nigeria’s friendly wins over Argentina in 2011 and 2017, or the win against France in 2009. There is also the possibility that a defeat might find its way into the ranking, if the actual performance was impressive enough to warrant it. Football is, after all, low-scoring and, as such, highly amenable to the effects of luck.
This entry concerns one of the classic rivalries of the African game.
Date: July 28, 2001
Venue: Liberation Stadium, Port Harcourt
Nigeria and Ghana share a long, storied history in African football, with their first meeting taking place in the 50s.
Since then, the Black Stars are one of the few sides on the continent to have amassed a winning record against the Super Eagles. The proximity and shared socio-economic history lends further weight to the rivalry between the two nations.
This meeting in 2001 had even more riding on it: a place at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. For one side, at least.
While Ghana had nothing concrete to play for (they could, at best, finish third in the group), Nigeria came into this game in the knowledge that a win would see them through to the following year’s World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
This was the final game of a qualifying series that had seen the Super Eagles come back from the brink. After the first five games, from which Nigeria only garnered seven points, Jo Bonfrere was sacked and Amodu Shaibu was handed the reins.
Working with Stephen Keshi and Joe Erico, the former BCC Lions coach set about turning the side’s fortunes around. Back-to-back wins over Liberia and Sudan, coupled with the Lone Star losing to Ghana on the penultimate matchday, once again placed Nigeria’s destiny in their hands.
It was by no means a gimme, however. For one thing, it was Ghana, who had to this point not lost to Nigeria in 17 years. For another, their earlier meeting in the group saw the Super Eagles held in Accra by a quite experimental Black Stars selection.
The stakes as well made for a nerve-racking occasion. Amid allegations of possible match-fixing, Liberia captain George Weah had intended to be present in Port Harcourt for this game. However, after the Rivers State Commissioner for Sports Igo Aguma famously stated he would not be able to guarantee the safety of the 1995 World Footballer of the Year within the stadium complex, Weah wisely elected to keep his distance.
In any case, any suggestion of Ghana throwing the game was dispelled by the conduct of their contingent leading up to the game: they changed their flight plan at the last minute, and reportedly refused to eat the food availed them at their hotel – a classic bit of African football paranoia.
Legendary coach Fred Osam-Duodu was also bullish about his side’s prospects. “Ghana’s games against Nigeria are always for bragging rights and Ghana wants to sustain its dominance over Nigeria,” he said. “I have my integrity to protect. Ghana and Nigeria matches go beyond the World Cup. It is about rivalry.”
Lineup (4-4-2): Ike Shorunmu; Joseph Yobo, Justice Christopher, Taribo West, Ifeanyi Udeze; Tijani Babangida, Sunday Oliseh, Jay-Jay Okocha, Finidi George; Nwankwo Kanu, Victor Agali.
There was a return to the team for captain Oliseh, who had missed out on the victory over Sudan due to injury. Some believed at the time that he might have been faking, as he bore no ill effects barely four weeks later.
More pertinently, this was a different set-up to that which had utterly decimated Sudan in the previous game. Whereas in Omdurman Finidi had served as an extra midfielder for greater security in possession and the team had been focused on attacking with pace down the wings, here there was a return to the more “traditional” shape.
Goals were needed, and so having only been a substitute in Sudan, Kanu started here.
In truth, whatever sense there was of a tense afternoon was dispelled very quickly. Nigeria took the lead inside the very first minute through Victor Agali, who headed home Okocha’s free-kick from the left after Kanu had been fouled.
It is an odd goal to look back on: the Hansa Rostock man was actually going backward, and so his header lacked real power, and just seemed to bobble past Ghana goalkeeper James Nanor, who must have been unsighted.
Agali was, at the time, the anointed heir of Rashidi Yekini’s crown as leader of the Super Eagles’ attack. A towering striker adept in the air, he nevertheless would go on to struggle with the expectation, culminating in the infamous Kuriat Hotel incident in 2004. All things considered, he lacked the pace and balance but, more importantly (and surprisingly) the aggression to truly make the role his own. This, however, was his honeymoon period in international football: he finished this qualifying series as Nigeria’s top scorer in qualifying with four, all headers from balls stood up into the penalty area.
Agali’s opener served to calm frayed nerves, but this was a game ultimately won by the searing pace of Tijani Babangida.
After a positive first impression at Ajax, Babangida struggled to regain his standing within the first team after missing a chunk of the 1998/99 season due to malaria, and by this point was coming off a loan at Turkish club Genclerbirligi.
Still, he had lost none of his trademark speed, and he used it to good effect here.
Ghana recovered quickly from the shock of going behind so early, and put together some respectable attacks. However, after the 15’ minute mark, Nigeria once again got back on top: Finidi saw an effort saved by Nanor, and then in the 19th minute, Babangida broke through to make it 2-0.
The pass from Okocha was into Agali, but the striker couldn’t quite gather it in. Babangida simply pounced on the loose ball and streaked clear of the Black Stars’ defence, before finishing with the outside of his right boot.
Ghana again sought to respond, but got sucker-punched just after the half-hour mark. A long pass by Udeze saw Babangida again go through, after improbably winning an aerial challenge, and then rounding the advancing goalkeeper before scoring into an empty net.
In the 40th minute, Osam-Duodu decided he had seen enough. In a surprising move, he substituted goalkeeper Nanor, throwing on Osei Boateng. It was the precursor to an unfortunate event, but one which would culminate in mild comedy.
Within four minutes. Boateng had received his marching orders from unimpressed referee Hichem Guirat. His offence? Cleaning out Agali who was through on goal. Left with no goalkeeper, team captain Emmanuel Osei Kuffour went into the goal for the rest of the game.
Despite facing a barrage of shots through the entirety of the second half, Kuffour remarkably kept a clean sheet, thwarting Kanu, Udeze and Agali on multiple occasions, in addition to plucking a number of crosses out of the air. Ghana saved their best goalkeeper for last, apparently.
A comfortable 3-0 win saw Nigeria advance to the World Cup at Liberia’s expense and by a single point.
This was, sadly, the last time this Super Eagles played with proper freedom and joy. At the Africa Cup of Nations six months later, they were oddly lethargic (albeit in a generally abysmal and forgettable tournament), and the team was disbanded amid allegations of ill-discipline and insubordination.
Despite the resounding nature of this win, there remain few pleasant memories for Nigerian football fans where Ghana is concerned. The last two competitive meetings between these proud nations have seen the Black Stars eliminate the Super Eagles from the Africa Cup of Nations.
That, more than anything else, is why this particular result was (and remains) special.