Nigeria, as a young country, still heavily relies on its oral history. In many cities and villages, the story of the country and its people are told by elders in parables and anecdotes to wide-eyed children. It is because of this that I believe, that as a Nigerian, an individual lives more than one life.
The stories are repeated so often –adding and subtracting things as the years go by—that you start to absorb the memories as your own, to the point that you’re able to recount it as if you had witnessed those events through a time machine. I knew about Nigeria’s rivalry with Argentina before I could identify Argentina on a map, and I dreaded the feeling before every major international tournament that Nigeria and Argentina would face each other again. And it always seems to happen, the two teams have met in 3 of the 4 World Cups that Nigeria has managed to qualify for: USA 94, Japan and Korea 2002 and South Africa in 2010. The teams have also met in two Olympic Finals and the still painful 2005 Under-21s World Cup Final match.
Nigeria has its fair share of rivals, the most prominent being Ghana –the little brothers—but none are as fun nor as dreadful as the rivalry with Argentina. While La Albiceleste more often than not possess the more famous players, the Super Eagles are a team that is historically built on teamwork and flamboyance, a combination that has managed to frustrate the South American side through several generations.
This cross-continent fracas took its roots in the 1994 World Cup when Nigeria were drawn into a group that featured Argentina, Bulgaria and Greece. This particular Argentina team also happened to feature one Diego Maradona who was famously sent home by FIFA for ephedrine doping two games into the tournament, which unfortunately for many Nigerians was two games too late. Though he did not score, the diminutive wrecking ball managed to influence the tug of war with confounding dribbles and Janus like vision. Other notable names on that 1994 Argentina team include Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone, goal machine Gabriel Batistuta, and Manchester United dreamkiller Fernando Redondo.
Nigeria were no slouch neither, just winning the African Cup of Nations and possessing a coalition of tricksters in Samson Siasia, Sunday Oliseh and a 20 year old Jay-Jay Okocha, who were reinforced in defense by then Captain and now current manager Stephen Keshi. Both teams were coming off the back of resounding victories when they met in the second match: Argentina trashing Greece 4-0 and Nigeria routing eventual semi-finalist Bulgaria 3-0. Siasia scored for Nigeria soon after kickoff after a bad pass for the Argentina defense –boastfully chipping Goycochea after nutmegging a defender.
But every Nigerian knows that nothing in life comes easy –my mother’s favorite summary of life is in fact that “life is a struggle” which she says with the utmost seriousness and acceptance. Those dreaming of a victory against Argentina were in for a rude awakening. The aforementioned Maradona would roll the ball to Batigol from a freekick, the massive forward struck a pile driver that was unsurprising too hot for the goalkeeper to handle, leaving Cannegia to score from the spilled rebound for the equalizer.
The next goal came seven minutes later. Diego would quickly play the ball to Cannegia after the referee blew for a foul on the left side of Nigeria’s defending third. The quick play took Nigeria by surprise as most of the players were walking back and looking away from the ball, leaving Cannegia the menace with an embarrassing amount of space to curl the ball past the keeper for the 2-1 lead. The game was essentially over and the second half played out with much fervor but no additional goals.
The two teams would meet again in Atlanta two years later for the Olympic finals and Nigeria would have their revenge on Argentina. There was no Diego Maradona but the Argentina team still had a cast that included an older but still brash Simeone, Javier Zanetti, Ariel Ortega, Hernan Crespo, Roberto Ayala and Hugo Morales. Nigeria also came prepared, bringing with them the highly favored Nwankwo Kanu, an older and more accomplished Okocha, the colorful Taribo West, Victor Ikpeba and Oliseh as well.
Argentina was in dominant mood once again, embarrassing Spain 4-0 in the quarterfinals, and calmly dispatching Portugal 2-0 in the semis. Nigeria handled Mexico in the quarterfinals 2-0 thanks to goals from Okocha and Babayaro but had an extremely difficult time in the semifinals against Brazil in a game that went into extra time. Of course the legend Kanu would go on to score the winner –his second goal– in the 94th minute and push Nigeria to the finals. Claudio “El Piojo” Lopez would strike first for the South Americans, shattering whatever hopes that the Nigerian crowd harbored in the build up to the match b the three minute mark.
Fate would shine down on the Super Eagles this time though as Babayaro would cancel out El Piojo’s goal in the 28th minute. Ortega would open up his bag of tricks and dive in the 50th minute to win a penalty that Crespo easily dispatched to put Argentina up again. But the Nigerians would not be denied, Eagles are meant to soar and Amokachi would score in the 74th minute to keep the Africans in the game. Once again the end of the game drew near and in the 89th minute, Nigeria was awarded a freekick outside of Argentina’s penalty box –on the left side. Wilson Oruma struck the ball, the Argentina defense stepped up in unison in a perfect offside trap but karma –undefeated since the beginning of time—would come haunt them as an offside Amunike was allowed to strike the winning goal.
Oretga ironically complained, Daniel Passarella –the manager of Argentina at the time—agreed with his player but the goal had been given and Nigeria were gold medalists.
The two teams would be drawn into the same World Cup group again in 2002. This time, neither one of the teams would make it out of the group stages, Argentina finishing third with four points and Nigeria fourth with only a point. There was still an incredibly competitive and close battle between the two that was decided by a Batistuta goal in the 63rd minute. Simeone, Ortega, Lopez and Crespo were usual suspects for the Argentines, accompanied by new faces Pablo Aimar and Juan Sebastian Veron. Nigerian arrived with Kanu, Okocha, West and Babayaro leading the Nigeria new guard as well.
Since Nigerians live multiple lives due to the nature of the history, the generation in 2005 must have felt a cold chill up their spine when they saw Diego Maradona reborn in Lionel Messi. The reborn wizard would utterly destroy Nigeria, scoring a brace and running rings around Nigerian boys in the final of the Under-20 World Cup played in Holland with the help of Sergio ‘Kun’ Agüero, Fernando Gago, Oscar Ustari, Pablo Zabaleta and Ezequiel Garay.
The two teams met again in another final again in 2008 where Argentina would condemn the Super Eagles to a silver medal and a 1-0 victory from an Angel Di Maria chip, a goal that Siasia would be disgusted by. A goal that was assisted by known villain Lionel Messi, who was a doubt for the tournament initially after Barcelona’s legal battle win over FIFA. There was no Kanu or Amunike for Nigeria this time, only an inept Victor Anichebe who came close twice but was denied by the goalkeeper.
Drawn again together in the 2010 World Cup, this time both villains stood on the side of Argentina: Maradona being the manager of the team and Lionel Messi the captain. The Nigerian team contained no such old guard or savior this time, or it would have seemed before Vincent Enyeama turned Messi into a tragic hero. The playmaker weaved his magic, dribbling through, between and past defenders at will only to be denied by Enyeama in a cycle of events that frustrated the Argentine captain to no end. The frustration spread to the king on the touchline who clutched at prayer beads and threw his hands up every time his heir was turned back by the goalkeeper. Argentina would win thanks to a Heinze header from a Veron corner and numerous Nigerian players exposing their lack of composure, missing chance after chance to equalize. But the story of the game would be of Enyeama’s heroics, who denied the combination of Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi in a heroic performance.
A few friendlies have been played since and between those matches: One in Abuja back in 2011 where Nigeria trounced Argentina 4-1, only to lose in similar fashion in a 3-1 defeat a few months later in the reverse fixture. Messi of course did the damage in the 3-1 loss.
Now then, cruel fate has drawn Nigeria and Argentina again in the 2014 World Cup in what could only described as Sisyphus torture. Argentina typically are coming in with an embarrassing level of attacking talent led by one Lionel Messi and this time they’re coming into the tournament as overwhelming favorites due to the stability of Alejandro Sabella as manager. Nigeria, to their own credit may not be the Nigeria of 1994 but have won the African Cup of Nations in the same fashion as their predecessors and while the names on the team are not as big as their elders, the teamwork and flamboyance is still very much alive.
The most that can be said for the upcoming match is that one team will win, it will be a tight contest and someone will be seeking revenge in the future. Past that, there’s not too much in the way of predication as each team has beaten the other in the past –large and small victories—and it usually takes one magical moment to decide the game. Both sets of fans will be distraught and excited at the prospect of facing a rival that has always stepped up their game whenever they faced each other and it figures to be one of the best matches of the group stage.
Still, tortures of generations past still linger in the memory and the sooner Nigeria is drawn into group that does not contain Argentina for the next World Cup, the better. Many are running out of lives to give to this rivalry.
The wonderful, amazing and incredibly intelligent Travis wrote this, you can find him at @Phaetonv2 .