Former Super Eagles midfielder Garba “Chindo” Lawal has been both on the winning and losing sides for Nigeria against Brazil. He recollects both episodes and gives hints on how the current Eagles can surprise the Samba boys…
I HAVE EXPERIENCED the beautiful and ugly sides of playing against Brazil. The beautiful side was at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta when we defeated them 4-3 in the semi-final of the football tournament before advancing to win the gold medal match against Argentina in the final. The ugly side was in 2003 when they beat us 3-0 in an international friendly match in Abuja. Both games are fresh in my memory.
It’s not for nothing that Brazil are considered by many people as the best football nation in the world. They have five FIFA World Cup titles to show for it and they have produced some of the best footballers in the world as well.
When we faced them in Athens-Georgia, it was the second time at that Olympics. Earlier, they had beaten us 1-0 in Miami-Florida in the group phase so when we met again in the semis, we were the underdogs. At half time, they were leading us 3-1 and things were looking bleak. They had won the 1994 World Cup in USA two years before and some of their world champions such as Bebeto and Ronaldo de Lima were in the Olympic team as well. But during the halftime team talk, our Dutch coach Jo Bonfrere told us that if Brazil could score three goals in the first half, we also could score three goals in the second half. He said we should take the game to them as we had nothing to lose.
Bonfrere’s words worked like magic because we actually scored three goals in the second half and won the game 4-3. I think that was the first time FIFA tried the Golden Goal rule because after Nwankwo Kanu scored the winning goal in extra time, the match ended automatically and the referee blew the final whistle. Brazil had no chance to respond again. They were completely shocked.
The secret of our victory was hard work and self-belief. I remember quite well that I played alongside Celestine Babayaro on the left flank and I was defending and also attacking constantly. Each time I went forward, Daniel Amokachi would tell me in Hausa that I should remember to fall back quickly because I was virtually the only defensive midfielder as Sunday Oliseh was suspended for the game. It was very tiring for me but we were rewarded with victory in the end. By the time we faced Argentina in the final, our confidence was sky-high and we beat them 3-2. Surely, that Olympic gold is the greatest achievement of my football career.
After the Games, we heard that Brazil wanted to play us in a friendly but the match did not happen immediately. It took seven years for it to finally take place in Abuja and I was in the Super Eagles team that faced them. Chairman Christian Chukwu was our coach and JayJay Okocha was the captain.
Okocha, Kanu and I were the only three players from the Atlanta ’96 team that faced Brazil in Abuja. Again, they had just won the 2002 FIFA World Cup again the previous year and they were rated number one in the world. I believe they came to Abuja with anger to avenge their 1996 defeat and prove their real class to us. We also wanted to win especially in front of our home fans but I must admit that on this occasion, they were far better than us. The 3-0 score line in their favour was not a fluke at all.
Either winning or losing, one thing I enjoyed playing against the Brazilians was the openness of both games. They are very confident of their abilities, so they usually allowed the opponent the freedom to play in the belief that they can outplay you. They didn’t play any rigid defensive formation or tactic. They allowed the game to flow. It was like saying, “play your game, may the better side win.”
I believe the current Super Eagles under Gernot Rohr can expect a similar approach from the Brazilians in the up-coming friendly in Singapore. The game will be difficult because Brazil have not won a World Cup for some time now and they are desperate to make a statement with every game. Nigeria have a young team, so our lack of experience may show. But if our boys have self-belief and confidence, they can make a good impression.
We must admit that we’re going to be the underdogs again and be prepared for a difficult game. Our back four and defensive midfield must be rock solid and focused because the Brazilians have great technique and speed to punish any sloppy play. Up front, our best strategy will be to rely on quick counter-attacks as their defense is traditionally weaker than their forward line.
Whatever the outcome of the match, I already can pick some positives. We’re exposing our players to the highest level competition possible and that is not bad at all. The experience will help the players to grow quickly and that will be to our advantage in the long run.
Garba Lawal currently works as coach of Real Stars FC of Kaduna in the Nigeria National League. He spoke to Mumini Alao.