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WORLD CUP DAILY REPORT

Bora Still Upsetting Some People

Group D: His Nigerian team rallies for a stunning 3-2 victory over Spain.

June 14, 1998|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Bora Milutinovic, a man gifted with a shrewd mind and a largely incomprehensible vocabulary, said something simple and to the point a few days ago.

"We may have lost our last few matches, but it's the next three that count," he said, scoffing at those who had dismissed Nigeria's World Cup chances after a series of poor performances.

Spain's coach, Javier Clemente, also said something interesting before Saturday's clash between the Olympic gold medalists of 1996 and 1992.

"The current team has a winning mentality; it's one of their primary characteristics," he said. "They are born winners."

Right.

Try telling that to the thousands of green-and-white-clad Nigerian fans who sang and danced and cavorted in the stands Saturday afternoon at Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes after Nigeria had twice come from behind to stun Spain, 3-2.

The Spanish, World Cup quarterfinalists four years ago and one of the favorites this time, were leading, 2-1, with less than 18 minutes to play when they suddenly allowed everything to fall apart.

First, veteran goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta, playing in his 125th international game, contrived to palm an admittedly dangerous cross from Garba Lawal into his own net.

The ball had been struck firmly from the left wing, but was running parallel to the net and all Zubizarreta needed to do was pounce on it or push it away for a corner. Instead, he missed it altogether, then thrust out his right arm at the last second and, to the dismay and astonishment of his teammates, turned Lawal's shot into a goal.

That made it 2-2 in the 73rd minute, but worse was to come for Spain.

Five minutes later, the Spanish defense made a hash of clearing a corner kick, again from the left, and the ball fell to Sunday Oliseh, about 20 yards out. Oliseh lashed out with his right foot and sent a shot screaming toward the net.

While Zubizarreta, the Spanish captain, hurled himself to his right, the ball struck the inside of the left post and flashed into the net.

Just like that, a likely 2-1 victory became a 3-2 defeat.

"I'm just so happy," Oliseh said. "It's difficult for an African nation to reach this level and there has been a lot of turmoil. We wanted to win for the 104 million Nigerian people. We deserved the result and they deserve to enjoy it.

"It is just a great result after all the hard work we put in."

Spain had not played its best game, but appeared to have done enough to earn the victory. It almost took the lead in the opening seconds when Nigerian goalkeeper Peter Rufai had to dive smartly to his left to turn away a shot from Raul, who a few minutes later hit the crossbar with another shot.

Spain eventually took the lead on a well-taken free kick by Fernando Hierro in the 21st minute, the ball curling around the Nigerian defensive wall and into the upper-right corner. Rufai was completely baffled by the shot.

But Nigeria was unperturbed. It tied the score four minutes later when Mutiu Adepoju leaped between two taller defenders, Hierro and Kiko, to head in a corner kick from Lawal on the right.

The score remained tied until a couple of minutes into the second half, when the petulant Raul finally was rewarded for his industry. The Real Madrid star sprinted onto a long pass from Hierro and volleyed it into the net past the startled Rufai. The goal set Spanish fans singing in the stands.

But it was the Nigerians whose voices were loudest at the final whistle.

"A lot of the things the critics were saying about us were true," midfielder Finidi said. "But one match, one win and everything changes--that's football."

Clemente, who lost for only the fourth time in his six years in charge of Spain, was numbed by the defeat.

"It was a very difficult game for us, and a very difficult result to take," he said. "You can't take anything away from Bora's team. They scored three goals, which is always hard to do at this level."

As for Bora, he was beaming. He is now only one victory away from becoming the first coach in history to lead four countries into the second round of the World Cup. First Mexico, then Costa Rica, then the United States and now Nigeria.

"It is an emotional moment because I didn't really expect it," he said. "The players fought for all the game and they showed excellent concentration, [but] this is only one step. Our luck is in now, but we need at least five points to qualify for the second round."

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