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Friday, 29 March, 2002, 13:13 GMT

Super Eagles make their mark

13 June 1998: Nigeria 3-2 Spain

When Sunday Oliseh's half-volley flew past Spanish keeper Antonio Zubizarreta to give Nigeria victory in their opening game of the 1998 World Cup, the Super Eagles had landed.

A team full of promise and playing uninhibited, attacking football, had been tipped to do well in France.

Nigeria had excelled on their first appearance at the World Cup finals four years earlier, losing out to Roberto Baggio's golden goal for Italy in the last 16.

By the time France 98 came around, players like Jay Jay Okocha, Taribo West, Celestine Babayaro, Victor Ikpeba and Finidi George had a wealth of experience with top European clubs.

But few people considered them potential world champions as they had yet to prove they could beat the world's leading nations when it mattered.

They had the chance to rectify that in their opening group clash with the highly-rated Spain, who had their own stars in Fernando Hierro, Luis Enrique and Raul.

Nigeria started badly and only a great save from Peter Rufai prevented Raul scoring in the opening seconds.

The Real Madrid striker hit the bar with a header after five minutes and Alfonso went close moments later.

In the 21st minute, Spain capitalised on their domination when a Hierro free-kick was deflected off the wall and past Rufai.

Completely outplayed and a goal down, many teams would have struggled to recover.

But Nigeria were back on level terms within three minutes as Mutiu Adepoju leapt between two Spanish defenders to head home a corner.

From then on the pattern of the match was set.

Spain controlled the majority of the possession and Raul constantly threatened, while Nigeria relied on raking crossfield passes and the dribbling skills of the forwards and midfielders.

Okacha and Ikpeba had good efforts on goal and a penalty appeal came and went for the Spanish as both sides looked for the breakthrough.

That breakthrough came two minutes into the second half and was one of the goals of the tournament.

A 50-yard pass from Hierro found Raul in the Nigerian penalty box, and the striker placed a side-foot volley past Rufai into the corner.

It was a wonderful piece of skill and gave Raul a surge of confidence that almost saw him score a second goal soon after.

The miss proved costly.

After 73 minutes of a pulsating encounter, Nigeria equalised fors the second time thanks to a horrendous error from Spanish keeper Antonio Zubizarreta.

Lawal sent in an apparently harmless cross from the byline that caught Zubizaretta too far off his line, and in attempting to recover he pushed the ball into his own net.

It was a disaster for Spain, and their opponents took full advantage.

Nigeria swarmed forward and fired in shot after shot on Zubizaretta's goal as Spain defended desperately.

One clearance landed at the feet of Oliseh, who connected with a half-volley that flew past Zubizaretta and in off the post.

It was a hammer blow to the Spanish who did not fully recover until their final group game against Bulgaria, by which time it was too late to prevent an early exit.

Nigeria won their following encounter with Bulgaria but then allowed over-confidence to take hold.

With a quarter-final tie against Brazil looming, the Super Eagles crashed out of the tournament with a 4-1 defeat to Denmark.

But for the first time Nigeria had shown they could be contenders.


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