Emmanuel Amuneke had almost given up hope of playing in the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations when Dutchman Clemens Westerhof pulled off the big surprise.
Amuneke would not delude himself by pretending that he would be picked for a starting role in the continental championship after he forced his way into the Tunisia ’94 23-man squad made up largely of Europe-based players.
Westerhof was forced to alter his plans for the tournament following Amuneke’s consistent performances at Egyptian giants Zamalek. The player finally wormed his way into the national team coach’s heart when he scored a goal against Sudan in one of the tournament’s qualifiers.
The left-footer had in 1993 helped Zamalek, who signed him from Lagos outfit Julius Berger, following his great performance in the 1991 All Africa Games in Cairo, win the CAF Champions League and believed he could at least get substitute roles starting from the group stages of the tournament.
But Westerhof had other ideas as he dropped him to the bench, where he watched his Super Eagles’ teammates beat Gabon 3-0 and playing out a goalless draw to qualify for the quarterfinals along with Egypt from Group B.
Rashidi Yekini’s brace in the 2-0 defeat of Zaire (now DR Congo) sent Nigeria into the semifinals where they beat Ivory Coast 4-3 on penalties to reach the final.
In the other semifinal encounter, Zambia beat Mali 4-0 to set up a final battle against Nigeria. Many people around the world rooted for the Chipolopolo (the Copper Bullets).
Their supporters wanted the Chipolopolo to win the trophy in honour of their colleagues who perished in the Gabon air disaster on April 27, 1993.
A Zambian Air Force plane conveying the team to Dakar for their 1994 World Cup qualifier against Senegal had crashed in Gabon, killing all 30 passengers, including 18 players and coaches.
Kalusha Bwalya, who helped Zambia reach the final of Tunisia ’94, cheated death when he took permission to play a league match for Dutch side PSV Eindhoven before travelling from Holland to Senegal for the qualifier.
Meanwhile, Amuneke, who had grown used to a bench role in the competition, was looking to cheering up his colleagues in the final at the Stade El Menzah, Tunis, on April 10, 1994 with no thought of playing a role in the encounter.
But hours before the game, Westerhof decided to change his formation for the clash. He named Amuneke in Nigeria’s starting lineup.
Westerhof’s decision shocked the former Julius Berger star. It shocked some of his teammates. It shocked many Nigerians watching from the stands and those watching on television back home.
However, Westerhof’s decision proved a masterstroke as Amuneke fired Nigeria to the title – their second after winning on home soil in 1980.
Elijah Litana headed past Nigeria goalkeeper Peter Rufai to give Zambia the lead in the third minute. Amuneke equalised two minutes later and went ahead to grab the winner on 47 minutes.
“I didn’t demand an explanation from Westerhof why he was not playing me in the tournament and he didn’t explain to me either,” Amuneke, who won the 1994 African Footballer of the Year award after Tunisia ’94, told our correspondent on the telephone during the week.
“I wasn’t happy that I was not playing - no player who finds himself in my situation will be happy.
“I think i deserved to play in some of the matches because of my quality but the coach had his reasons for not playing me.
“Every player selected for any tournament wants to play. But one has to be realistic because there were good players in the team.
“Football is a team game and the coach can’t play all the players at the same time.
“I was patient and kept working hard in training, hoping for a chance to play in the competition.
“I was shocked that the opportunity came in the final but I was glad to get the opportunity to play.”
Amuneke insists he was not nervous before the final, although he had yet to kick a ball in the championship.
He said, “I was determined to score in the match because it was the final. I was not short on self-confidence. I had self-belief and I knew I would do something on the pitch.
“I wanted to prove my worth and show that I was good enough to play for the country.
“We went into the game with determination and grit necessary to beat a Zambian side that lost some of their players in a plane crash before the tournament. It was a painful moment of their lives – I mean the people of Zambia.
“They (Chipolopolo) were determined to win the competition. They played with great determination right from the group stages to the semifinals.
“Having reached the final, we were expected to win the competition. We (players) also had a lot of hopes placed on the game. Every one of us was ready to give his best in the encounter and it was no surprise we won the trophy.”
Amuneke said his equalising goal for the Eagles boosted his confidence and he decided to complete the job by scoring the winning goal.
“After scoring the equalising goal, I was determined to score another goal,” the 43-year-old said.
“So when the opportunity came, I took it. The two goals resulted from teamwork. Another player could have scored.”
Amuneke, who was named as the Under-17 national team coach recently, said his determination to succeed, helped him score the winning goal for Nigeria in the final of the men’s football event of Atlanta’96 Olympic Games.
The former Barcelona winger, who was one of the three overage players in Nigeria’s squad for the Under-23 tournament, scored in the final minute to help Nigeria beat powerhouse Argentina 3-2 in front of a record crowd of 86,117 at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia, on August 3, 1996. Amuneke replaced Victor Ikpeba in the 72nd minute.
Claudio Lopez gave Argentina the lead on three minutes before Celestine Babayaro grabbed the equaliser on minutes.
Hernan Crespo converted from the spot for the South Americans with just five minutes into the second-half while Daniel Amokachi powered home 24 minutes later. The encounter was heading for extra-time when Amuneke struck.
“I was determined to score the winning goal and I’m glad the opportunity came and I utilised it,” the former Sporting Lisbon star said.
“After beating Brazil in the semi-final (4-3 in extra time), we had the belief that we could win the tournament – the first African team to do so.
“Thank God we won it and credit goes to the team. Every one of us worked to win gold.
“I think I was destined to score the winning goals for Nigeria at both Tunisia ‘94 and Atlanta ‘96.”
Amuneke lamented his inability to cement his place in Barcelona starting lineup in his four years at the Spanish La Liga club.
Barcelona signed the Nigerian after the 1996 Olympic Games from Sporting Lisbon following his consistent form in the Portuguese league.
The Olympic gold medallist showed his quality when he broke into the Catalans’ first team. However, he suffered a serious knee injury in a 1998 World Cup qualifying game.
Amuneke was not the player Barcelona laboured hard to secure his services when he recovered from injury. He was a shadow of his former self. Consequently, he missed out on a place in the France ’98 World Cup.
The Spanish giants were forced to loan him to Albacete in 2000 after Amuneke failed to recapture some of his past form. He was at Albacete, who were playing in the Segunda Division (second division) until his contract at Nou Camp expired.
Albacete signed him on a permanent basis and was at the club for two years. After the side released him in 2002, Amuneke joined South Korea outfit Busan IPark the following year.
However, Amuneke left the club during the transfer window, after he struggled for form following the knee injury, to join Jordanian Premier League club Al-Wehdat SC in November 2003.
He hung up his boots after a season in Jordan – in 2004.
“The injury denied me the opportunity to make my mark at Barcelona,” he said.
“It’s painful, but I have no regrets serving my fatherland.”
Amuneke, who together with his fellow Tunisia ’94 Africa Cup of Nations winner Nduka Ugbade assisted Manu Garba when the Golden Eaglets won the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates in 2013 says he is delighted to have been selected to head the team’s coaching staff.
The former Al Hazm (of Saudi Arabia) assistant coach said, “I’m glad to have a chance to contribute to the development of Nigerian football as a coach. I’m grateful to the Nigeria Football Federation for considering me for the job.
“I’m grateful to my fans who supported me when I was playing. I hope I can make them happy by winning something for the country.
“I don’t want to make promises because football is a funny sport. I want my work to speak for me.”
Amuneke said the Eagles’ chances in the summer’s World Cup in Brazil “depends on our preparation for the tournament”.
“If the players understand what it means to play in the World Cup and work hard, we can make an impact,” the retired player, who scored the third goal against Bulgaria in Nigeria’s opening game in the USA ’94 World Cup, said.
“The players should be grateful for the opportunity to play in the World Cup because there are many great players who couldn’t get such an opportunity.”
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