BY KUNLE SOLAJA.
With qualification for the Round of 16 already secured after the Super Eagles two victories over European sides, Spain and Bulgaria at the Group D of the France ’98 World Cup, the third match against South America’s Paraguay became a mere formality.
And so on this date, 24 June in 1998, at the match played in Toulouse, it was more important for Paraguay to win as the Super Eagles only played to fulfill the fixtures. Little wonder, the Super Eagles did not put up much attacking flair as they did in their preceding two games.
After enduring 180 minutes of tedious, goal-less soccer against Bulgaria and Spain, Paraguay needed less than one minute to hit the target against Nigeria.
A 51-second header by Celso Ayala helped Paraguay to a 3-1 victory over Nigeria and paved the way into the second round of the World Cup at the expense of Spain.
Ayala’s header was the fastest World Cup goal since Bryan Robson’s 27-second strike for England against France in Bilbao, Spain, in 1982.
Francisco Arce swung over a free kick from the right and, with the Nigerian defense stationary, Ayala jumped unchallenged to beat goalkeeper Peter Rufai’s attempted punch and head into an unguarded net.
The goal sparked Nigeria’s talented strike force into action and the Super Eagles, fielding only four of their regular starting lineup, equalized in the 11th minute though Wilson Oruma.
In the build-up to the goal, Nwankwo Kanu slipped an elegant pass through to overlapping winger Tijani Babangida who cut inside, and was felled by a Paraguayan defender, but still found the unmarked Wilson Oruma some metres from goal. Oruma, who at the time played for French club Lens, side-footed home.
The Super Eagles appeared fighting to go ahead. In a space of six minutes, the popular Paraguayan goalkeeper, Jose Luis Chiavert was kept busy, forced to make acrobatic saves from a Sunday Oliseh’s shot, a header from Taribo West and another shot from Rashidi Yekini.
Half time scores stood at 1-1. Paraguay went ahead again in the 59th minute. They got the third goal, five minutes to regulation time to edge out pre tournament favourites, Spain and advanced along with Nigeria.