BY KUNLE SOLAJA
Till date, it remains Nigeria’s worst defeat in all 21 World Cup matches the Super Eagles ever played.
Never since the 30 October 1955 Jalco Cup encounter in which the then Gold Coast (now Ghana) beat Nigeria’s Red Devils 7-0 in Accra had a Nigerian national team been so humiliated in a competitive encounter as it happened on this date 28 June 1998 at the France ’98 World Cup.
Even though an earlier 5-1 loss to Algeria at the opening match of the 1990 Africa Cup of Nations could be heavier, it was not as devastating as the loss to Denmark eight years later.
So much was expected from the Nigerian national team that the entire France ’98 followers were shocked when the team was beaten 4-1 by Denmark.
But this time, the world had expected Nigeria, which had beaten two European sides, Spain by 3-2 and Bulgaria by 1-0 to do the same to Denmark and set up for the first time, in the World Cup a quarterfinal clash of reigning Olympic champions and World Cup holders.
The players that won the Atlanta ‘96 Olympic gold medal composed the bulk of the Super Eagles. Brazil, the current World Cup holders had already scaled into the quarterfinals.
But the clash was not to be. Nigeria crumbled miserably 4-1 on a night the duo of Uche Okechukwu and Rashidi Yekini played their last international matches.
The match was barely three minutes old when Peter Moller put Denmark ahead. Brian Laudrup added the second in the 12th minute. When Ebbe Sand put in the third in the 60th minute, it turned to be the fastest goal by a substitute player in the World Cup history.
He was just 18 seconds on the pitch after coming in as a substitute for Peter Moller.
“It is a shame to lose like this”, remarked Victor Ikpeba. He was the first Nigerian to come out of the dressing room after they had kept reporters waiting for more than 30 minutes.
In the days they won matches, the Super Eagles marched out to the “Mixed Zone” to meet reporters within seconds of conclusion of the games.
For the Nigerians, reaching the quarter-finals of the France ’98 World Cup could have been a dream, but that night, it was more than nightmares for the Super Eagles who were the obvious favourites over the hitherto unsung Danish team that re-enacted its flaming form of the early stage of Mexico ’86, scoring at will.
The 4-1 defeat of Nigeria brought back the memories of Mexico ’86 in which the Danes went goal-berserk beating, for instance, Uruguay 6-1.
Glorious Danes! They did their homework well providing antidotes to every Nigerian strategy.
“We knew the Nigerians are skilful and often like to attack … so we closed the midfield tightly”, said Bo Johansson, the Swedish coach of Denmark.
For Nigeria, everything went awry. Poor goalkeeping, clumsy defenders, unimaginative midfielders, wingless flank men and clay-footed attackers, were the spectacle the Super Eagles presented the French crowd who cheered the Nigerians all the way, even in the face of obvious humiliating defeat.
Poor Austin Okocha, perhaps the only imaginative player in the Nigerian squad. He was struggling bravely to redeem a hopeless situation.
Coach Bora Milotinovic, obviously bereft of ideas, sat glued to the bench as if the pressure of the rampaging Danes had consumed him.
The Super Eagles looked spineless. Upfront, Victor Ikpeba was lost, roving aimlessly. Garba Lawal was deserted by imagination, unable to take any direct shot at goal, even when the field was clear for him.
He preferred to make unserviceable passes. Nwankwo Kanu was irritating. He put every foot wrong and everyone concluded he was not psyched up for the World Cup.
After 20 minutes, he was no better than a wandering passenger on the field. His substitution was forced on Bora. Even then, Yekini did not prove to be an alternative. He was clumsy with the ball.
Mutiu Adepoju had a fairly good game, playing in the unfamiliar position of right full back and having to support a glaringly feeble attack. The defence ruined an already bad situation.
Not even the hitherto celebrated Inter Milan ace, Taribo West could rise above average. He was heavy, very heavy like a pregnant woman due for delivery. He had obviously burnt himself out in the tough Italian league.
Goalkeeper Peter Rufai appeared to have blurred vision. Within three minutes of the game’s kick off, Peter Moller had put his side ahead.
After the match, Col. Abdulmumuni Aminu the then chairman of NFA sat glued to his seat, even five minutes after the state-of-the-art Stade de France was nearly empty.
His dark suit over black trousers and shoes perhaps reflected the melancholy state of his mind as he glanced blankly into the dark Paris sky. Deserted on the bench, Aminu was obviously finding it difficult to come to terms that the World Cup dream was over.