Artistry has its limits, in soccer as elsewhere, and Nigeria discovered that the outrageous talent of its players could not make up for an equally outrageous lack of organization.
Nigeria crashed out of the 1998 World Cup, losing by 4-1 to Denmark in a second-round match. A goal down after three minutes, two goals down after 12, the Super Eagles never recovered their poise and often found themselves dribbling at great speed, but in circles.
Nearly everyone had a soft spot for the West African side. Their extraordinary victory in the 1996 Olympics, clinched with victories over Brazil and Argentina; their sometimes dazzling touches and their sheer goofy unpredictability encouraged the dream that skill alone can carry the day.
As the sole-surviving representative of Africa, Nigeria also carried with it the hope that a poor continent could produce a world-beating team built on sheer talent despite Africa’s lack of resources.
But a player’s individual magic, as even the Brazilians know well, is worth little or nothing if not grafted onto a team’s collective discipline. For all of Jay-Jay Okocha’s dreamlike dribbling, for all of the finesse of George Finidi, the Eagles were essentially fragile, and they came apart. The Danes were a revelation. Precise, mobile and ruthless in their finishing, they often found themselves in acres of space as Nigeria’s team spirit visibly evaporated. The score could easily have been still harsher.
Only three minutes had gone when Michael Laudrup laid the ball square to his fellow striker Peter Moeller. The Nigerian defense opened up before Moeller as if inviting him to shoot, and Moeller obliged, driving a splendid left-footed shot into the left-hand corner of the goal from 18 yards out.
It was Moeller again, nine minutes later, who stepped up to shoot after a free kick was awarded just outside the Nigerian penalty area. The shot was again fierce, but almost straight at the Nigerian goalkeeper Peter Rufai. Any goalkeeper would have caught the ball or punched it clear.
Rufai was of two minds as to which solution to adopt. The result: the ball bounced away from him straight into the path of Brian Laudrup, the younger of the two brothers, who joyfully slotted the ball into the net.
At the other end, in the Danish goal, the towering figure of Peter Schmeichel loomed. Schmeichel commanded the penalty area, making Nigeria’s repeated long, high crosses look utterly futile.
On an evening when everything went right for the Danes, Coach Bo Johanssen made an inspired decision in the 60th minute. He sent on Ebbe Sand for the tiring Michael Laudrup, and within 22 seconds Sand scored – the fastest goal by a substitute in the history of the World Cup.
The game was over. Several Nigerian players stopped running. This was always a team that wore its heart on its sleeve, and the heart – so joyous, so miraculous at times – had stopped beating.
The Danish midfielder Thomas Helveg, who had a great game, scored in the 76th minute, blasting the ball into the roof of the net from 4 yards after Rufai had fumbled again. Tijani Babangida’s scored a consolation goal in the 78th minute.