Daniel Amokachi giggles. He guffaws. He jokes and smiles. It’s a little incongruous coming from a man whose shirt ripples with the muscles of a body-builder and who looks like he could go a couple of rounds in a prize fight. The former Nigerian international and Everton striker, the man they call the “Bull” is a bit of a softie at heart.
He still has a soft spot for Everton, where his twin boys are in the club’s academy, and, obviously, for Nigeria, the country he won a gold medal with at the 1996 Olympics and where he has returned to live. He also has a soft spot for South Africa, now working for SuperSport doing studio work in both football and now the Olympics. And, he admits just a little sheepishly, he has a soft spot for the other team in Merseyside.
“I was a Liverpool fan as a boy,” he told me over dinner last week. “I loved that club. They were my team growing up. You can’t just start supporting another club, but I loved Everton.” But, I ask, what did it feel like scoring against Liverpool?
“I never did! I always seemed to hit it over the bar or past the post,” he laughed. “I loved the city. My boys (Zazim and Khaled) are at boarding school there.” At a 2009 match against Wigan at Goodison, Amokachi, who scored 10 goals in 43 matches for Everton, was introduced to the crowd and received a massive cheer from the crowd. No doubt they remembered the goal he scored two goals in the 1995 FA Cup semifinal to help Everton beat Spurs 4-1. He managed to substitute himself on to the field after Paul Rideout had gone down with a knock. It was, said then manager Joe Royle, a “good mistake” and he was reported to be bewildered when he looked up to see the Nigerian on the field. Rideout was a tad surprised himself having recovered and was about to run back on to the field when it was pointed out he had been replaced. Two goals, one headed and the other side-footed in, and Amokachi was a Goodison hero. His sons may follow in his footsteps, with one apparently a good, attacking midfielder and the other very much like the father, all power and strength.
Nigeria have only won gold twice at the Olympics, both of them coming in 1996 in Atlanta. Chioma Ajunwa won the women’s long jump, and then the men, the Dream Team from Africa, beat Argentina in the final at the Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia.
“We didn’t have it easy,” said Amokachi. “We had Brazil in our group and lost to them 1-0 after Ronaldo scored against us (in the 30th minute). But we finished second in our group. We beat three South American teams in a row then – Mexico in the quarterfinals, Brazil in the semifinals and Argentina in the final. We worked for that medal.”
Jay-Jay Okocha Celestine Babayaro scored against Mexico, but the semifinals had to be taken to extra time. Nigeria conceded in the first minute, to Flavio Conceicao. Then Roberto Carlos scored an own goal with 20 minutes gone to even things up before Bebeto made it 2-1 in the 28th minute and Conceicao scored another 10 minutes later.
“That was an outstanding Brazil team,” said Amokachi. “They had Ronaldo, Bebeto, Roberto Carlos and Rivaldo. And they had Juninho, and he was just running us ragged. He was a brilliant, brilliant player. When they took him off the field we just felt this huge sense of relief. It was like we had this new breath of air in us. We fought back and then scored the golden goal.”
Victor Ikpeba belted in a goal in the qith 12 minutes remaining, before the captain, Nwankwo Kanu, scrambled in the equaliser on the 90th minute. Kanu then scored the winner just three minutes into extra time to put Nigeria into the final. It is widely acknowledged as being one of the greatest Olympic matches of all time. In the final Argentina were 2-1 up thanks to Claudio Lopez and Hernan Crespo’s penalty. Amokachi scored the equaliser in the 74th minute before substitute Emmanuel Amuneke scored the winner in the final minute of the match.
“For us, the Olympics was one of the greatest times of our lives. We had stayed outside the athletes village in hotels because we thought we were superstars,” laughed Amokachi. “But when got to the village we were blown away. There were all these big-name athletes and they were the best of the best. It was the best time ever.”