The fighting spirit of Nigerians came alive at the Rio Olympics in the wee hours of Friday as the Under-23 national soccer squad, the Dream Team, put aside their jet lag to beat Japan 5-4.
The team arrived at the tournament barely hours before their first match against Japan due to a delay in Atlanta, USA for officials’ alleged failure to pay for their flight. But that would not deter the boys.
Nigeria took the lead in the seventh minute, after Imoh Ezekiel on the right flank fired a left-footed shot that goalkeeper Masatoshi Kushibiki could only parry onto the path of an onrushing Sadiq Umar, who tucked the ball into the net to send the team into celebration.
However, the celebration was short-lived as Japanese forward, Shinzo Koroki, struck back in the ninth minute via a spot kick after Stanley Amuzie was adjudged to have fouled an opponent.
Nigeria paid the Japanese back in their own coin just after two minutes through Oghenekaro Etebo who deftly controlled a long ball before powering home from close range.
The quick equalizer magic worked again for Japan. Takumo Minamino latched onto a perfectly executed through ball which he slotted through goalkeeper Emmanuel Daniel’s legs to leave the score level at 2-2.
Three minutes before half time, Umar received the ball in the penalty zone and laid off a pass for Etebo. Etebo’s shot at goal bounced back off an opponent for a better chance to hit the back of the net and for the Dream Team to once again take the lead.
Umar resumed his star display in the second half and his courageous foray into the opponents’ vital area saw him being hacked down by the Japanese, resulting in a penalty kick which Etebo made no mistake about as he sent the Japanese goalkeeper the wrong way.
Four-goal hero and first Nigerian to score a hat trick at the Olympics, Etebo, added to his tally after the duo of captain Mikel Obi and striker Umar harassed Kushibiki into a floppy clearance that landed at the feet of the CD Feirense of Portgual midfielder to net his fourth goal of the match.
Soon after, the toll of nearly a week of being stranded in Atlanta and arriving in Brazil only a few hours to the match was evident in the Nigerians. Consequently, Japan succeeded in narrowing the gap to two through Takuma Asano who was recently signed by Premier League side, Arsenal.
But Nigeria was able to hold on to a well-deserved victory despite a late rally from the Japanese, which produced a goal by substitute Musashi Suzuki in the final minute of added time.
Kudos to the Dream Team.