Sixteen years ago, Diego Armando Maradona took the field in Massachusetts against Nigeria in what would be his final World Cup match. That day, the 33 year old Maradona was not at his best, but he used his vast experience and guile to top the Africans 2-1 in one of the most entertaining games of USA 1994.
Now, as fate would have it, Maradona is back on the World Cup stage as Argentina’s controversial manager and he once again have to rely on his experience rather than his brilliant speed and skill he displayed in the 1980’s to beat the Nigerians. This time however, he will not be able to touch the ball, but rather relay instructions to his players, an area where El Diez has struggle during his tenure as Argentina’s high profile boss.
In those 16 years since Maradona said good-bye to the World Cup against his will, Argentina and Nigeria have contested many heated matches, the most momentuous coming at the youth levels, but there is no question that the two teams will know each other well, and for Nigeria especially, there is a score to settle.
In FIFA World Cups, the majority of rivalries are centered on geographical relations or political histories. In recent World Cups, we have seen the emergence of African teams who have often butted heads fiercely with their former colonizers, such as Senegal against France and Angola taking on Portugal.
When the South Americans meet the Africans at Ellis Park on June 12th, it will be the third meeting between the two sides during the Group Stage of a FIFA World Cup, with the first such taking place all those years ago in the States.
It is one of the most anticipated matches of South Africa 2010, and should offer plenty of attaking flair with the likes of Messi, Di Maria, Taiwo, Yakubu, and other taking part.
Here is a brief history of the match ups between the two sides:
1994 FIFA World Cup in the USA: Group Phase: Argentina 2 Nigeria 1
That day at Foxboro Stadium outside of Boston, Argentina and Maradona, who had contested the last two World Cup Finals and were also the holders of the Copa America, met what is considered Nigeria’s best squad of all time.
The Africans jumped out to the early advantage through Samson Siasia, who caught Luis Islas well off his line.
Argentina battled back after Peter Rufai fumbled Gabriel Batistuta’s free kick into the path of Claudio Caniggia who made no mistake in scoring from the rebound.
La Seleccion took the advantage and won the match after Maradona cleverly took a free kick quickly and slid a pass into the path of Caniggia who finished past Rufai into the top corner.
Current Argentina assistant Alejandro Mancuso came on as a substitute late in the match as Argentina held on before Maradona was led to the now infamous doping test that ended his World Cup participation as a player and crushed Argentina’s team spirit.
1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics: Gold Medal Match: Nigeria 3 Argenitna 2
The two sides met at the 1996 Summer Olympics in the Gold Medal Match. With Uche Okechukwu, Sunday Oliseh, and Jay Jay Okocha as the main holdovers for Nigeria, the Super Eagles overcame Argentina, coached by Daniel Passarella, 3-2 in a thrilling Final.
Argentina came in boasting a side full over River Plate stars who had just won the Copa Libertadores such as Matias Almeyda, Hernan Crespo, Arieal Ortega, and Marcelo Gallardo, while future stars in the European game like Roberto Ayala, Javier Zanetti, and Diego Simeone were also amongst Passarella’s ranks.
Claudio Lopez had given Argentina an early advantage after three minutes, before Celestine Babayaro pulled Nigeria level on the half hour.
After the break, Hernan Crespo restored the Argentina lead through a penalty, only for Daniel Amokachi to reestablish parity. With extra time on the horizon, Emmanuel Amunike snatched the Gold Medal at the death in what is to date the only significant victory over Argentina for the Nigerians.
2002 FIFA World Cup in South Korea and Japan: Group Stage: Argentina 1 Nigeria 0
Argentina entered the first World Cup on Asian soil as co-favorites along with France, and took on Nigeria with Okocha captaining the side in his last World Cup.
Although Argentina won the match, just 1-0, it foreshadowed what was to come for Marcelo Bielsa’s men: plenty of possession, but not much to show for it in front of goal.
Just after the hour, Gabriel Batistuta headed home Juan Sebastian Veron’s corner for the only goal of the match. Veron, who captained Argentina that day, is one of two holdovers from that 2002 side, along with Walter Samuel who played the full 90 minutes at center back. Both are expected to start again this time around.
Kanu and Joseph Yobo are amongst the Nigerians who played in Ibaraki eight years ago, while Vincent Enyeama and John Utaka were unused substitutes.
Making matters more interesting, is that Lars Lagerback, Nigeria’s current manager, was at the helm of Sweden at the time, and advanced out of the group at the expense of Argentina.
In a recent interview with World Soccer Magazine, Lagerback said of Argentina: “I think I know how to stifle Argentina. Sweden did at the 2002 World Cup.” No doubt bulletin board material for Maradona and his men.
2005 FIFA World Youth Championship in The Netherlands: Final: Argentina 2 Nigeria 1
It was a game that at the time was billed as a match between two of the greatest young prospects in world football: Lionel Messi and John Obi Mikel.
Since then, Messi has become the unquestioned best player in on the planet, while Mikel has been converted to a defensive midfielder by Chelsea and has been unable to recapture the attacking flair he showed as a youngster while playing for his country.
Messi gave Argentina the lead just before half time, when he won and converted a penalty before Chinedu Obasi, who is in Nigeria’s squad for South Africa, pulled Nigeria even.
With a quarter of an hour to go, Sergio Aguero was fouled in the area resulting in another penalty for Argentina, and again Messi kept his head from the spot and Argentina lifted the Cup with La Pulga finishing as the tournament’s top scorer and winner of the Golden Ball as its best player.
Mikel picked up the Silver Ball, while Taye Taiwo, a marauding left back who will undoubtedly start for Lagerback in Johannesburg, won the Bronze Ball.
Sani Kaita also played the full 90 minutes in Utrecht and will look to settle the score against Messi and Aguero in South Africa.
2008 Beijing Olympics: Gold Medal Match: Argentina 1 Nigeria 0
With a number of stars from each team back from the Under 20 World Cup three years earlier, Nigeria and Argentina met at the Bird’s Nest for the Olympic Gold Medal for the second time in history.
Promise Isaac, Amruse Vanzekin, Monday James, Dele Adeleye, Obasi, and Kaita were all back for Nigeria, while Messi, Aguero, Pablo Zabaleta, Ezequiel Garay, Fernando Gago, and Pablo Zabaleta were back on the side of Argentina.
Victor Obinna was a new addition to the Nigeria side, and the Malaga striker should have a part to play in South Africa.
Although three years had passed and some of the faces had changed, Messi would again be the deciding factor, but this time as a distributor rather than a finisher, when he slipped Angel Di Maria clear on goal. The Benfica winger, who had won a Under 20 World Cup of his own in Canada in 2007, chipped the onrushing Vanzekin to give Argentina a lead they would not relinquish.
Sergio Romero, Argentina’s number one under Diego Maradona, was present in the Argentine goal that day finishing the tournament without conceding a goal in his 345 minutes of action after replacing the injured Oscar Ustari.
Javier Mascherano played the 90 minutes in China, becoming the first Argentine to win two Olympic Gold Medals in any sport. The Liverpool enforcer will lead out Argenitna as captain this time around.
There is no doubt that the Nigerian players who suffered heartbreak at the hands of Messi and company will do out for revenge, particularly those who such as Kaita (pictured above) and Obassi who lost both Finals.
Taye Taiwo, who was not present at the Olympic Games, will also feel a need to prove himself against club mate Gabriel Heinze who began the season at Marseille as a centerback before sliding over and starting over Taiwo at left back.
For Argenitna, it will be a chance to reassert their dominance over the Africans, while Veron and Samuel well have a personal score to settle with Lagerback.
Despite all of the other storylines, there is no doubt that one man, Diego Armando Maradona, will steal all the headlines just as he did as a player 16 years ago.