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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Defense Rests for a Stunned Brazil

Soccer: Nigeria scores three goals in 16 minutes and advances to final with 4-3 sudden-death victory.

August 01, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATHENS, Ga. — While Nigerian victory drums banged long into the Georgia night, Mario Zagallo was hunkered down beneath the Sanford Stadium football stands, undergoing the formal interrogation, trying to explain the worst 16 minutes in the history of Brazilian soccer.

In the 78th minute of Wednesday's semifinal, Zagallo's supposedly peerless Brazilian team led Nigeria by two goals, 3-1, and the Nigerians were emotionally gutted. Moments earlier, striker Augustine Okocha had botched a penalty kick, squibbing it into the hands of Brazilian goalkeeper Dida.

It was over.

It was time to bring in the substitutes, to start preparing for Argentina.

So how was it that Zagallo was now sweating under the hot lights, mulling a 4-3 sudden-death defeat and responding to such hostile questions as, "Why are there no good defenders on modern Brazilian teams?"

Well, Roberto Carlos and Aldair are defenders for this Brazilian team, and they play professionally in the finest soccer league in Italy, and they were out there for all of the 16-minute meltdown, which featured:

--A 20-yard blast from just outside the penalty area by Victor Ikpeba, who beat Dida wide and cut the score to 3-2 in the 78th minute.

--A mad scramble in the box that was won by Nigeria's Nwankwo Kanu, who stuck a toe on a bounding loose ball, popped it up to knee level and then drilled it between defenders Aldair and Ronaldo Guira for a 90th-minute equalizer.

--A "golden goal" by Kanu in the fourth minute of sudden death, delivered after Kanu had spun Aldair and Guira around like toy tops and beaten Dida, one on one, inside the far post.

Three goals in 16 minutes.

Against many of the same players who brought the 1994 World Cup back home to Rio.

Initially, many of the Nigerian players couldn't believe the result.

A delirious Joseph Dosu, Nigeria's goalkeeper, staggered around for about 40 yards and then collapsed onto the grass, face first, where he remained for several long moments.

Finally, when he climbed back to his feet, Dosu was crying, tears of incredulous joy streaking his cheeks.

Okocha, stunned to have been pardoned for his penalty miss, called the victory Nigeria's proudest moment, on the soccer field or off.

"This means everything to Nigeria," Okocha exulted. "Football is the one thing in Nigeria that brings us together. For the people back in my country, this is maybe the happiest day of their lives."

The goal that ultimately took Okocha off the hook was the kind that will have Zagallo muttering all the way back to Brazil. Nigeria lobbed a long ball toward the penalty box, an aimless floater that hit an unsuspecting Ikpeba in the back.

The ball took a quirky carom, ricocheting all the way out to Kanu, who was standing idly by, next to the penalty arc.

Kanu latched onto the loose ball, deked Aldair one way, dribbled left around Guira and was suddenly all alone against Dida, a no-chance contest for the Brazilian keeper.

"A typical goal," Kanu deadpanned in the interview. "I have scored many goals like that for my club, Ajax Amsterdam."

Of course.

"I saw the defenders' backs were to me," Kanu went on, "so I dribbled through them and I shoot."

Zagallo, meanwhile, was busy fielding questions about two controversial substitutions--taking out star midfielder Juninho in the 68th minute and striker Ronaldinho in the 85th.

"Juninho was tired," Zagallo said. "We had to have more strength in the midfield." And Ronaldinho? "He had a concussion on his knee. Muscle pain."

Juninho, however, was stewing about being replaced with an appearance in the final at stake.

"I am disappointed, because I still felt very good," he said.

So now, Nigeria moves on to play Argentina for the gold medal Saturday. Brazil, which has never won a gold medal in Olympic soccer, will play Portugal on Friday for the bronze.

"We came here to win the gold," Juninho said, "and now we can only win the bronze.

"For Brazil, that is not a big deal."

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