Stade de la Beaujoire, Nantes
June 13, 1998
Spain – 2 (Hierro, Raúl)
Nigeria – 3 (Adepoju, Lawal, Oliseh)
Given their current pedigree, it is hard to imagine how unpredictable Spain was before they found their winning habit. Since winning the second edition of European Championship in 1964 Spain struggled for more than half a century to translate the talent of individual players into silverware. Time and again the La Furia Roja travelled to World Cup with expectations burdening them and each time they failed to live up to them. A combination of reasons, were to blame – from lack of squad unity to faulty squad selection. One of Spanish football’s greatest Waterloos came in 1998 when they made the short trip to France to participate in a group from which they were expected to cruise through.
Spanish football was enjoying an upward surge in the years leading to 1998 World Cup. FC Barcelona had won the Cup Winners Cup in 1997 while their arch rivals Real Madrid followed it up by capturing their first Champions League title in three decades just months before World Cup started. Javier Clemente had a solid base to build up the campaign after Spain had reached the quarter-finals in both the 1994 World Cup and Euro 1996, losing narrowly both times. In the qualification round Spain breezed through a group which was tough on paper and finished unbeaten ahead of Yugoslavia and Czech Republic. La Furia Roja was also one of the first teams to qualify for the World Cup and it seemed like they would finally make amends for their decades of underachievement.
Like the Spaniards, their opponents in the opening game, Nigeria were also enjoying a golden era of their own. Four years ago they arrived in USA after lifting Africa Cup of Nations title in April and went on to prove their doubters wrong by qualifying for the knock out stages after defeating Greece and Bulgaria. The Super Eagles almost knocked Italy out in pre-quarter finals but were undone by a Roberto Baggio masterclass. The players were left to rue a political cold war with South Africa two years later as the country withdrew from Africa Cup of Nations, without defending their title.
Redemption came a few months later in the Atlanta Olympics. After edging Japan out by goal-difference in the group stages, Nigeria outplayed Mexico in the quarter-finals. In semi-finals they faced Brazil, who had won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Ronaldo when the teams met earlier in the group stage. The Super Eagles were looking down and out at half time, trailing 3-1. But the script changed completely in second half as Nigeria rallied and Nwankwo Kanu leveled the scoreline deep into injury time. The Internazionale bound strike struck once again four minutes into extra-time, a golden goal as Nigeria became the first African team to reach the Olympic finals. They had to stage yet another comeback against Argentina in the finals, taking advantage of a mistake from Riquelme with 16 minutes left on the clock when they were trailing 2-1. Another late goal followed in possibly the most dramatic final of Olympic football in recent memory with Emmanuel Amunike scoring the match winner deep into injury time.
With the Olympic Gold in the bag and Bora Milutinovic on bench, a man who specializes on taking countries to World Cup, Nigeria qualified with ease for France 1998. Their confidence took a beating during a 4-1 humbling against the Dutch in a pre-World Cup friendly and the Super Eagles were very much the underdogs against Spain.
Spain: Andoni Zubizarreta; Alberto Ferrer, Rafael Alkorta, Sergi Barjuan, Ivan Campo, Miguel Angel Nadal; Fernando Hierro, Luis Enrique, Raúl Gonzalez; Alfonso Perez; Kiko Narvaez.
Nigeria: Peter Rufai; Mobi Oparaku, Taribo West, Uche Okechukwu, Celestine Babayaro; Sunday Oliseh, Garba Lawal, Jay-Jay Okocha, Mutiu Adepoju; Finidi George, Victor Ikpeba
Spain took just 5 seconds to make their intentions clear. A long ball from Hierro was headed by Okechukwu directly in Raul’s path. The Real Madrid striker took a snappy side volley which was well saved by Rufai. Four minutes later Hierro once again turned the provider as his cross was headed onto the post by Raul. On seventh minute Raul whipped a cross from the left side and Alfonso missed a heading opportunity by jumping a second late. A missed interception from Campo gave Nigeria their first first-half chance on the 10th minute. However, Ikpeba, inexplicably, tried to score from a narrow angle from far out, instead of finding any one of his team-mates in better positions. The Nigerian striker did much better couple of minutes later as he raced past Campo before forcing a save from Zubizarreta at near post.
Spain’s early pressure paid off on 20th minute. Oparaku climbed on top of Alfonso to head away an aerial ball but was adjudged to have fouled to Spanish striker. Hierro, all time top scorer for Spanish national team at that time, lined up for the free-kick, aiming it at Rufai’s far post. Alfonso stood by the side of Nigerian wall and peeled away at the right moment, creating a gap for Hierro’s shot as Rufai remained rooted to the spot.
Surprisingly, it took Nigeria just four minutes to equalize against the run of play. Garba Lawal swung in a corner as Hierro mistimed his jump. Adepoju crept behind him and with Zubizarreta stuck on his goal-lie, headed past Ferrer at near post. It was a crucial goal as without it Nigeria could have easily lost their way completely under Spanish onslaught.
That equalizer spurred the Super Eagles as they began to slowly build momentum. On 26th minute Okocha played a cross-flank pass towards George whose ambitious shot from distance flashed wide. Two minutes later Luis Enrique missed a golden chance. Raul turned his marker on left edge of the box before finding Enrique at far post. Enrique moved past Babayaro and had Rufai at his mercy but his first chance was eventually too heavy and the Nigerian ‘keeper gratefully collected it. On the other end Ikpeda’s pace was beginning to cause problems for the sluggish Campo and the Nigerian hit the side netting after sprinting past his marker.
In second half Spain took the lead almost immediately after the period started. Hierro received a ball inside the center-circle, took one touch before floating in a gorgeously weighted ball towards Raul who sprinted past his marker and volleyed past a diving Rufai. After re-taking the lead Spain generally looked content holding onto the possession while Nigeria struggled to move forward. Around the hour mark, Raúl missed a golden opportunity to extend Spain’s lead. Ferrer rolled in a pass from the right wing which was not picked by Nigerian defence. Sensing Raúl lurking at the far post Enrique allowed the ball to roll between his legs towards him. The Real Madrid striker was completely unmarked but failed to apply enough power to his shot, hitting it straight at Rufai.
On the 70th minute Milutinovic introduced Rashid Yekini, his most experienced striker and Nigeria’s all time top scorer. The veteran got involved in action just two minutes after coming on. He received a pass from Lawal, held off Alkorta before rolling the ball back towards Lawal. Lawal raced past a clumsy tackle from Campo before shooting towards the goal in what was a desperate attempt to prevent the ball from running out. Incredibly, Zubizarreta fluffed a routine stop, and somehow managed to palm the ball into the net when it was going away parallel the goal line. A fluke goal but Nigeria sensed a change in fortune.
Raúl missed his second sitter within a matter of 10 minutes as a similar move saw Ferrer find him with a cross at far post. This time he was closer to the goal, and shot with more power but he managed to drag his shot wide when it was easier to hit the target. Raul’s inability to deliver for Spain in crunch situations would become hot topic of debate later in his career and this match showed early signs of that pattern.
At the 77th minute, the unthinkable happened. A throw-in from Okocha was headed clear by Hierro but only as far as Sunday Oliseh. Oliseh unleashed a fierce right footed shot at first bounce from outside the box, the ball swerved in towards Zubizarreta’s near post, brushed past the diving ‘keeper’s fingertips hit inside of the post before going in.
Desperate for an equalizer, Clemente made a surprising switch of taking Nadal off for defensive midfielder Celades.
On the 82nd minute Nigeria had another golden chance, this time through the big man Yekini. Lawal moved long the right flank an looped in a cross past a jumping Hierro, finding Yekini. The veteran striker had his back towards the goal, standing near the penalty spot. To his credit, the 35 year old attempted an acrobatic back-volley which went just over.
Spain had another good chance to score five minutes before the final whistle but Sergi’s curving shot from outside the box went inches above the goal. Deep into injury time a low cross from Raúl found the Barcelona man at the near post but he scuffed his shot wide under pressure from Babayaro. That proved to be the last chance of this match.
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Javier Clemente’s sides have always been known for their knuckles up approach. Led by Nadal and Campo, Spain went in for a number of clattering tackles in the first five minutes. As a result of this, as strange as it may sound, the Nigerians were physically intimidated by Spaniards. The Super Eagles, in their part tried to follow every negative stereotype associated with African sides. For better part of first hour they were tactically naïve and at one point failed to string together more than two passes for long periods. There were moments of individual brilliance, like Okocha nutmegging Nadal inside Spanish box but lack of team-work and co-ordination meant Spain routinely won back possession soon after losing it.
The Nigerian defence looked a shambles in first half. As a result of this the midfield had to track back to provide additional cover. With Okocha also dropping deeper Ikpeba was starved off supply and was easily picked out by Campo or Nadal whenever he tried to move into dangerous positions. Encouraged by Nigeria’s timidity Spanish midfield took complete control of the central midfield, playing elaborate patterns. Nigeria’s lack of offensive prowess till 70th minute also meant Fernando Hierro operated almost as a deep lying playmaker and he kept spraying accurate long passes and overhead balls around the park. Stade de la Beaujoire had a significantly wide field and Hierro was able to spread Spain’s attacks along both wings with Enrique pushing up through the right wing and Raúl dropping deeper on the left side, before shadowing past his marker.
All this with a game changing substitution from Milutinovic. He brought on Rashid Yekini, taking off a defender and switching to a 3-5-2 formation. Nigeria’s all-time top scorer was 35 years old at that time but still had a reputation as a goal scorer. The 6 foot 3 striker was also physically strong and had ability to shield the ball. With Yekini’s introduction Hierro no longer had the freedom he enjoyed before and he had to drop back to mark the extra striker. This nullified the effect of his long passes, something the Nigerian defence had completely failed to deal with till that point. Yekini assisted Nigeria’s second goal and was a constant menace in the penalty box for rest of the game. Hierro dropping back also created more space in central midfield which Okocha was able to exploit.
Andoni Zubizarreta was a complete disaster. Allegations of Clemente playing favourites with a goalkeeper who became a star under him almost two decades ago, were not unfounded as the Barcelona legend looked shaky all game. He was slow off the line, slow to react in saves and remained rooted to his spot for most of the crosses. Ivan Campo was equally untidy and a constant weak link in the Spanish defence.
Man of the Match
Fernando Hierro (Spain)
His team may not have won this match but this was one the finest international performances from the Real Madrid legend. He scored Spain’s first goal with a perfect free-kick while a magnificent long ball set up Raúl for their second goal. He was defensively solid as well but unfortunately mistimed his jump a split second late which led to Nigeria’s equalizer in first half.
Spain struggled to come in terms with this loss and slumped to a dull and dour goalless draw against Paraguay in the following match. Needing to win at any cost against Bulgaria in the final group match the Spaniards finally woke up, thumping the 1994 semi-finalists 6-1. It proved completely inadequate as Paraguay’s victory over Nigeria in other group match ensured that the South Americans qualified as group champions. Pele had predicted before the World Cup that Spain were favourites for the title and this would eventually become one of his most infamous failed predictions.
Confident after their dramatic victory over Spain, the Super Eagles curved out a thoroughly professional 1-0 win over Bulgaria, qualifying for the knock-out stages in the process. A number of first team players were rested against Paraguay as Nigeria lost. That loss would eventually prove consequential as they lost their winning streak and finished as group runners-up. In pre quarter-final Nigeria faced off against Denmark. Just like their friendly against Netherlands before the World Cup, Nigeria spent the game chasing shadows against better organized opponents, trailing 3-0 by the hour mark before losing 4-1. It signaled end of an era for Nigeria as a number of important players from the class of 1996 would retire soon. The Super Eagles are yet to win a World Cup game since the 1998 edition, despite qualifying twice.