Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games soccer gold medal winning Nigeria captain, Nwankwo Kanu speaks to Completesportsnigeria.com's SAB OSUJI about U-23 Eagles captained by John Mikel Obi who are in Rio Olympics looking to emulate Atlanta '96 squad and win the second Olympic men's football gold for the country.
Kanu believes Samson Siasia’s squad to Rio 2016 is good enough to bring the Rio 2016 Olympic Games soccer gold medal back to Nigeria 20 years after the feat in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
As the stage is set for 2016 Olympic Games to get underway on Friday August 5, with Nigeria taking on Japan on Thursday August 4 in the opening group match, Papilo, as the former Arsenal of England, Inter Milan, West Bromwich Albion and Portsmouth of England striker is fondly called, believes the U-23 Eagles can shock the World in Brazil. He also believes it's Brazil, not Nigeria, that will be under pressure to win. Kanu also reveals how he is still savouring one of his prized possessions – his gold medal won in 1996.
Completesportsnigeria.com: Kanu, it’s exactly 20 years ago when you led the Nigeria U-23 football team otherwise known as DREAM TEAM 1 to win the 1996 Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, United States of America. On Thursday August 4, 2016, Nigeria will begin another journey to winning the gold medal for the second time when the U-23 team face Japan in Manaus. What are your thoughts on the Nigerian team? Can they reclaim the gold medal?
Kanu: I hope and I also pray that the U-23 Eagles replicate what we did in 1996 in Atlanta. I wish them all the best. I believe, and it is a fact too, that (Samson) Siasia is a good coach. Mikel as captain of the team will boost the team. Let them go out there and do their best. With all our prayers as Nigerians who are passionate about football and our national teams, they can do it. It’s 20 years now, like you rightly said, that we did our own (winning the Olympic Games Soccer Gold Medal in Atlanta) for the first time for Nigeria and Africa. I believe this team can as well do it. Siasia is not new to the terrain, he had been there before, winning silver medal in 2008 in Beijing, China. So, why not? He cannot look for anything short of gold this time and it begins with the first game against Japan because opening games in such tournaments are very crucial.
You sound so confident about this Dream Team V1. What gives you the confidence they can do it?
When you are written off before any competition, it serves as inspiration for you to spring surprises. From this stand point, I strongly hold the view that this team will deliver. Look at it this way, everybody is saying they don’t have a good team, they have not prepared well and that they even lack motivation in terms of welfare, and that the situation they are in is not a good one. There are stories all over the place about unpaid match bonuses and unpaid salaries and all the stuff which the Ministry (of Youth and Sports) say they are not aware of. These are not healthy at all for a team going for a big tournament like the Olympic Games. For me, that’s enough for the players to resolve and say, okay, let us prove them wrong. I believe that’s what the players are going to do.
Remember, it was this same scenario in 2005 when (Samson) Siasia was in-charge of the U-20 Flying Eagles going into the FIFA U-20 World Cup in the Netherlands. It was the same in 2008 going into the Beijing Olympic Games. So I believe they can go one step better this time and I’m confident about this.
Don’t forget, with (John Obi) Mikel coming into the team now will also help to make the team better. He has the experience and carriage to push the team.
Mikel coming into the team now and being handed the captain’s arm band is like in 1996 when prior to the ‘Battle of Mombasa’ you were handed the captain’s arm band. Do you foresee a repeat of that year’s scenario playing out again?
I was not given the captain’s armband during or after the ‘Battle of Mombasa’. I was captain of the team right from the start. I was the only professional player that joined the team from the beginning of preparations leading to the game at Mombasa. But as to whether that success scenario can play out again, I’ll say yes. Nigeria always produce good teams. This present team is good, so also our set of 1996. The only difference is the players. Our set was distinctly different from the present. But that does not take any credit away from the current squad. And I believe any country that hears about Nigeria must be scared. It gives us opportunity to leverage on that fear factor and our quality and strength to punish them. I believe they are going to do well and I expect them to reclaim the gold medal.
What are the strongest points you have noticed in this Siasia’s U-23 Dream Team V1 team that can stand them out in Rio Olympic Games?
Samson Siasia is always known to produce a team that work together. His teams always have positive attitude and strong mentality. His team never focuses only on a particular player. In other words, he does not build his teams around any particular player. He always instills discipline into his team. His team players always go out there to play for him. If you look at the U23 AFCON that they won, nobody gave them the chance but they won. That is the point I’m making that whenever the Nigerian team is written off, that’s when they come out to surprise you. Now with (John Obi) Mikel in the mid field, it’s going to bring balance to the whole team.
Do you believe in luck, especially in winning football matches?
Yes, I do. No matter the quality of your players, no matter the strength of your team, there must be an element of luck to push them all the way. For instance, Portugal were not the best playing team in the last Euro 2016 championship in France. They did not even win a single game in the group phase. But they went all the way to lift the trophy. Luck played a big role in their victory. So, I believe there is luck in the game of football just like in every sphere of life.
Then, could it be safe to say that Siasia’s Dream Team V1 camping in the same facility that you guys stayed in USA during the 1996 triumph in Atlanta could be part of the good luck factors for Nigeria in Rio 2016 Olympic Games?
Yes, it helps a lot. Players coming in and realizing that this is the same place where Nwankwo Kanu, Uche Okechukwu, Emmanuel Amuneke, Dosu Joseph, (Pastor) Taribo West and others stayed before winning the Olympic Games Soccer Gold Medal in 1996 will raise their psyche. Of course, it counts, it helps a lot.
But Papilo, don’t you think that a change in the captaincy of the team at this odd hour, replacing the captain, Okechukwu Azubuike, with John Obi Mikel can breed ill feelings and acrimony in the team which could ultimately rock the team’s gold medal dream boat?
It’s a possibility. You can’t rule that out, but it depends on how the coach and the management of the team went about it; how they handled it, I mean, how they did it. If they did it in a good way, in good spirit, there won’t be any problem about it. The most important thing is for everybody to work together, play for each other, on and off the pitch, focus on what they are in Brazil for which is to achieve success for themselves and for our dear country, Nigeria. Honestly, I do not see any problem in that leadership change. It’s only when we start making this noise about who is captain and who is not that issues come.
Papilo, cast your mind back to 1996 when you guys were in the Olympic stage and then contrast with present stage. What are your views?
We had a very strong team, character-wise. We had a lot of leaders in the team. Not only that, we had unity, the spirit was high and the squad was strong mentally. Every player was positive about what we intended to achieve and we did it. So this time, I believe we have a coach that knows his onions, a coach that is technically sound and has good carriage amongst his players who are always ready to play for him. That is a big plus for this squad, and with focus and determination, they can achieve what they set out to achieve.
Brazilians will never forgive you for that goal you scored in that semi-final match that denied them a place in the final, and perhaps their first ever gold medal in the Olympic Games. Tell me, what went through your mind the moment you scored that goal?
(Laughs). That’s a good one. We all know who Brazil are. For me Brazil are still the best (football playing nation across the world). And for us at that time, everybody thought that Brazil were going to win the Olympics soccer gold medal. They were talented, prepared very well, beating every team in their buildup games including Barcelona; it was a matter of time for them to take the gold medal home. They had a fantastic squad. But all the same, they won the first game against us, 1-0 in the group stage. Coming into the semi-final, it was a huge one. Then they went two goals up which means we were already down. For us to come back in the manner we did, and then for me to score that golden goal, honestly I don’t know how to describe it. But immediately I saw the ball inside the Brazil net, I realized that we’re back and back to win.
What did that 1996 Olympics success do to your career?
Like I always say, a country is a country, a club is a club. Country is bigger than any club. Whatever you do, you have to sacrifice; you must be able to give everything that is needed from you to achieve what your country wants to achieve. You have to bring everything out to do well for your country. When we played that semi-final match against Brazil in that Olympics, there were lots of trouble, crisis in Nigeria. We knew that sports were the only things that unite the country, the only area where the whole nation come together. On that day in Atlanta, I remember that a lot phone calls were coming in, people holding parties everywhere, bonfire all over the streets and suddenly there was absolute peace in the country. Peace returned to our country. By doing so, by that our singular performance, that victory in Atlanta, we reunited the country. This, for me, is a very big achievement. So that’s one thing I always live to remember and I hope Nigerians will always live to remember it as well.
Where is that your Atlanta 1996 Olympic gold medal 20 years after? I mean where is that medal today?
It is in my house. It is one of my prized possessions in life. I cherish it so much. I value it as well. Each time I come in, I always go there, have a feel of it. Each time I have a feel of it, I always show it to my kids. They know the story now as they are growing. I really thank God for that. It is something so special to me and I always try to ensure I preserved it because there is this saying that what you love, you preserve.
The Olympic soccer gold medal is the only missing silverware in Brazil’s trophy cabinet. They are still bitter that we stopped them from getting it when they came very close to it in Atlanta in 1996. What do you think will happen if Nigeria get to meet them in Rio, especially now that they are hosting the Olympics?
When I said Brazil are still number one football nation in the world, I mean every bit of what I said. And for a big soccer nation like Brazil not to have achieved it shows the magnitude, the importance and value of what Nigeria has put on the map of world football through that Olympic Games success in Atlanta. That Nigeria are the only country that stopped Brazil from doing that, from achieving their life-long dream of winning Olympic Games soccer gold. That means that every Nigerian, anywhere we are, we should be proud of ourselves over what we have achieved. That puts Nigeria's name on top of the map in terms of football. So I believe this time around, the Brazilians will do everything possible to win and that means putting up a very strong squad to do that. But I must also add that no matter the squad they bring, it won’t be as strong as the 1996 team in Atlanta. But if you ask me, I would say that if we can beat their biggest squad ever in Olympic Games history, no matter the squad they present in Rio, Nigeria can still repeat history by replicating what we did to them in 1996 in Atlanta.
Don’t you think that Samson Siasia’s Dream Team will be under enormous pressure to replicate the 1996 feat which you led the U-23 Dream Team 1 to achieve in Atlanta?
That’s why it is always important to have the ex-players around to talk to them. They have to let them know that there is no need for them to be under any pressure. They only need to go there, do their best and come back. It is clear they are going there for gold, but nobody should put them under any form of pressure. It is not a matter of life and death. It is not a matter of if you don’t win, you must not come back, no! Victory comes normal, same as defeat, if it gonnahappen, it happens. The aim of going there is to win. Should the U-23 Eagles succeed in winning the gold, fine and good. Success comes under normal atmosphere, not under atmosphere of pressure.
Take a look at your crystal ball and tell us, between Nigeria and Brazil, who will be under immense pressure at the Rio Olympic Games to deliver?
Brazil! Reason is that they have not won it before and again, they are playing at home where every one single Brazilian will be on hand to watch and that fear of not wanting to disappoint their home fans is an added pressure on its own. Nigeria have won it before and stands to lose nothing if don’t win. So Pressure is on Brazil and not on Nigeria.
Success or failure in a competition of this nature starts from the group games. Nigeria will open her campaign on Thursdayagainst Japan in Manaus. What are your thoughts on the game? What are Nigeria’s chances in that crucial opening game?
I’m a Nigerian. I’m a patriotic citizen for that matter. So I tip Nigeria to beat Japan.
Is it because you are a Nigerian and former captain of that team that makes you tip Nigeria for victory on Thursday in Manaus?
I’ll say it again that I’m a Nigerian and want the best for my country. You know the first game is very important in any tournament. But then, I’m convinced that the team have all it takes to conquer. They have quality players, experienced coach so why not?
Papilo, it has been wonderful speaking with you. Thanks so much and I hope you will oblige us when next we call on you.
It’s my pleasure.