Members of the Super Eagles squad to the 1994 World Cup in the United States have paid glowing tributes to the legendary Diego Maradona, who died of cardiac arrest in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Wednesday.
The former Eagles stars revealed how the Argentine’s trickery and ball sense caused problems for Clemens Westerhof side during their group tie 26 years ago.
The Eagles, were on cloud nine after their opening 3-0 win over Bulgaria at the Cotton Bowl Stadium, Dallas, Texas, but they were brought down to earth three days later at the Foxborough stadium by Maradona’s ingenuity, as the South Americans came back from a goal down, Samson Siasia’s 12th minute opener, to triumph 2-1 over the then reigning African champions.
Claudio Caniggia grabbed both goals, firing in a rebound in the 22nd minute after Maradona passed to Gabriel Batistuta, who fired a shot from the edge of the penalty area.
Again, it was Maradona’s genius that created the second goal in the 29th minute.
The Argentina captain saw Caniggia break into space on the left, while getting ready to take a free-kick, and quickly sent a short pass to him.
Caniggia took two steps inside the penalty area, before swerving his shot past the stranded Peter Rufai, in goal for the Eagles.
Former Eagles captain and coach Sunday Oliseh, who was tasked with the responsibility of keeping close tabs on Maradona, said it took him two days to recover after marking the legend.
“I was one of the youngest players at the 1994 World Cup and we had a wonderful start ever,” Oliseh recalled in an interview with Saturday PUNCH.
“We beat Bulgaria 3-0 in our opening game and we were confident ahead of the game against Argentina.
“I recall Clemens Westerhof telling me prior to the game that I was to mark Diego Maradona, which I did, but man-marking that old man was like facing a lion when he came with the ball. We started the game well and took the lead through Samson Siasia.
“But they reacted like bees whose hive was destroyed. It took me two days to recover from that task. We lost, but luckily we beat Greece to advance to the next round. Having had the opportunity to play against him was a very special occasion for me
“My task against him boosted my confidence after that game that I believed I could play in the biggest clubs in the world because, having been able to compete against him, with the esteem I held him at the time, and still hold for him, it meant I could play against anybody.”
Siasia, scorer of Nigeria’s only against the Maradona-led Argentines, added, “Maradona was the greatest I ever played against. He showed the world he was the greatest during his playing years.
“At a time he should be enjoying his life he died. It was a privilege that our set played against him – though we did not win. He was not at our level when it comes to football. He’s the greatest of all time and nobody can take that away from him. We will all miss him.”
Defender Austin Eguavoen revealed that the late Maradona’s wit and experience helped La Albiceleste to a famous win over the Eagles.
“Our strategy against Argentina was very strong, but our inexperience showed when he (Maradona) gave a quick pass to (Claudio)Caniggia, while we were still forming our wall. That was where his experience made the difference,” the Nigeria Football Federation Technical Director told Saturday PUNCH.
“He was a very influential player because I saw how he motivated his fellow players in the tunnel in Boston; I was just looking at him.
“For me, Diego is the best ever, but those who watched Pele played insisted he (Pele) was better than Maradona. However, I was on the same pitch with him, I know he could do things out of nothing, just like our own Jay Jay.”
Ex-Barcelona winger Emmanuel Amuneke, who was also part of the Eagles squad at their maiden World Cup, has won several laurels with clubs and country, including winning the 1994 AFCON and 1996 Olympics gold, as well as being named the African Player of the Year in 1994.
But he insists playing against Maradona remains one of the highlights of his glorious career.
“It was one of my greatest moments; he brought smiles to a lot of faces in football and even beyond,” former Tanzania manager Amuneke said.
“Most of us saw it as a privilege and an honour to have played football on the same pitch with him.”
Before his death, Maradona, who played for Napoli, Barcelona and Boca Juniors, battled a series of health issues.
He was admitted to hospital in January 2019 with internal bleeding in the stomach.
He also fell ill at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where he was filmed passing out in an executive box during the game between Argentina and Nigeria.