World Cup Special: Just how good were Nigeria in 1994?
The Super Eagles generation of the mid-90s are generally considered as the finest collection of players ever assembled in the green of Nigeria; but are they as good as we remember?
By Solace Chukwu
Nostalgia is a powerful thing.
It enables us to remember incidents in the past with longing. Most of the time, however, it is simply a refusal to acknowledge the rapid passage of time, or the reality of present events.
It is a widely held view, for example, that defending was much better back in the 70s and 80s. While this may be true, it does not take into account the increased (almost chaotic) pace of the modern game, and the onus on modern defenders to adapt to this as well as changes in the offside rule and quality of the actual footballers themselves.
Nigeria remembers with fondness the golden generation of 1994, helmed by Dutch coach Clemens Westerhof, which brought the country its finest hour on the world stage. They played with a swagger that was uncommon among African sides, especially considering the manner in which Senegal and Ghana would achieve acclaim in later World Cups. The Teranga Lions were solid and physical at the back, getting to the Quarter Finals of the 2002 World Cup on the back of organisation and spirit.
In 2010, Ghana were professional and similarly disciplined.
The template for African sides at the World Cup seems clear: defend en masse, be physical in midfield and strike on the counter attack.
Perhaps this is why the USA ‘94 team was so loved and feted. They actually sought to dominate games, and played with a carefree spirit allied to cohesion.
While this is true, it does not quite tell the whole story.
It is easy to remember the masterful performance in the group opener against Bulgaria, complete with the iconic net-clutching celebration by Rashidi Yekini. That game showcased all that team did superbly: Daniel Amokachi’s drift into a wide area, allowing Finidi George to ‘underlap’ into the space between centre-back and full-back to assist the first goal was a distinctive feature.
This scheme was repeated in the third group game against Greece, where both Yekini and Amokachi opened up oodles of space in the heart of the Greek defence by dragging markers away.
Emmanuel Amuneke and Finidi combined in a central area to open the scoring that time around; both were the team’s nominal wingers.
The major weakness of a flat 4-4-2 is its inability to compete in central areas. While the team was by no means flat, it did not possess a great deal of defensive nous in the wide areas. Amuneke, while a brilliant winger in his own right, was not the most disciplined defensively. Perhaps this was an indication as to why he played such a sparing part at the Nations Cup in Tunisia earlier in the year. When he did get his chance in the final against Zambia, he responded with a tournament-winning brace.
From then on it was going to be hard for Westerhof to leave him out.
Finidi did his bit on the other flank, but basically the team ensured it wasn’t caught out through the middle not by being narrow, but by being extremely cynical. They broke up play so often, and with such blatant intent, it was a wonder that team never had a man sent off during the tournament.
Going forward, however, the team played the 4-4-2 expertly, with tremendous width and constant switches of the ball to the flanks, as well as hitting the forwards early in the channels. Physically, Yekini and Amokachi as a duo were a nightmare to mark. Amokachi brought the power and speed, while Yekini was the quintessential poacher.
In spite of all these qualities, the team had something of a mental block against elite opposition.
Some of this may be placed squarely at the doorstep of Westerhof, whose assertion that he was only worried by tournament favourites Brazil belied the way he set his stall out against Argentina and Italy. The contrast between these games and the ones against Bulgaria and Greece were incredibly stark. It makes sense to alter your strategy to contain a superior opponent, but save for a few flashes of adventure, it looked like two different teams altogether.
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