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Okocha, Lawal, Taribo relieve USA ’94, Atlanta ’96 memories

Former Super Eagles captain, Austin Okocha was looking every inch in tip-top shape on April 8 , when he stepped on the synthetic field of the   Campos mini stadium in Lagos. He bounced around like a newborn, strutting his stuff, wagging his tail and juggled the ball in a rhythmic flow that captivated those watching him.

His presence at the stadium located in the heart of Lagos Island sent the fans into a frenzy as they scampered to catch a glimpse of the one and only Jay Jay Okocha, the midfield talisman, the master dribbler and the great passer, who at one time, bestrode the Nigerian football landscape like an octopus.

From left, Sound Sultan, Nwankwo Kanu and Waidi Akanni try to catch their breath during the half-time
From left, Sound Sultan, Nwankwo Kanu and Waidi Akanni try to catch their breath during the half-time

Okocha was not alone at the MTN-sponsored Best 11 event, which attracted the top acts of the USA 1994 Eagles World Cup squad, like goalkeeper Peter Rufai, defensive midfielder Garba Lawal, left-full back Celestine Babayaro, Mutiu Adepuju, forward Daniel Amokachi and Ike Shorunmu.

Other notable Eagles stars who played on that date were striker Nwankwo Kanu, goalkeeper Ike Shorunmu, Ifeanyi Udeze, Etim Esin and Taribo West. Coach of the team was Adegboye Onigbinde, who took Nigeria to the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea

It was indeed a collection of Nigeria’s best team at the World Cup and Olympic stage, as most of the players were also part of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where Nigeria for the first time won a gold in the men’s soccer event after defeating Argentina in a pulsating and thrilling final match.

Two years before the epochal Atlanta feat, these same crop of players had actually captivated the global football audience with their romantic and attacking brand of football in the same America, where the World Cup came to uncle Sam’s country and got to the second round, losing in injury time to a Roberto Baggio-inspired Italian side 2-1.

These were players whose names are forever written in gold as the remain the only Nigerian side to have attained the fifth position since the FIFA rankings were introduced. That position remains Nigeria’s best till date as successive teams have foundered to the extent that the Eagles are now ranked 45th in the current rankings.

So it was with these in mind that MTN decided to reunite these heroes of Nigerian football at a special launch of their Tru Talk package.

Aware that the traditional African society is one that encourages relationships and fosters inter-dependence amongst people, the telecommunications firm in its bid to promote these values brought these ex-players together to connect with the public.

The launch of the ‘My Best 11’ promo was a pointer to the importance placed on staying in touch with loved ones. The promo was launched with a view to making its numerous subscribers tap into the MTN Trutalk initiative, a platform where-in one will register 11 people amongst those that really matter to them and call them at 50% discount.

Knowing fully well that the concept of ‘Best 11’ emanated from the beautiful game of soccer where a coach is bound to field his ‘Best 11’ at any given match, relating this to our nature of interdependence, thus becomes very interesting.

The match lived up to expectations as Okocha and Kanu made their marks with their deft touches as they rallied from a two-goal deficit to level scores at 2-2, with Okocha scoring both goals.

Garba had given the other team the lead before a second goal by Etim Esin.

Speaking afterward, the gladiators said their reunion reminded them of their glorious runs in 1994 and 1996.

“Playing with these players made me to remember what we went through at the World Cup in USA. It was a big battle for us and our first baptism at the global stage but thank God, we went and gave a good account of ourselves. It was a truly humbling experience”, said Okocha, the former Bolton captain.

Also speaking, Peter Rufai said that “USA 1994 was a defining point for most of us as it was the first time we were going to the World Cup to play in front of a global audience and getting to the second round was a big accomplishment for us.

“I cherish every minute I played with my former teammates because they played like champions even though we did not win the cup”, said Rufai.

For Garba Lawal, playing with the likes of Okocha and Adepoju rolled backs the years when Nigerian football soared high.

“That was when our football was at its best. We were truly super then and it showed in the way we played. Compared to today, these is nothing to talk because we shone like a million stars”.

While commending MTN for reuniting the players, defence ace, Taribo West urged other telecommunication firms to toe the line of MTN by unveiling propositions that will boost interdependence and make us value one another the more.

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