Victor Ikpeba: “There was a before and after for me post the 1996 Olympic Games”

  • Victor Ikpeba was crowned Olympic champion in 1996 with Nigeria
  • Africa was behind us
  • Morocco, Egypt and Mali are the African teams qualified for the Men’s Tournament.

It was 28-years ago that the Super Eagles of Nigeria claimed gold at the 1996 Olympics with Victor Ikpeba forming a part of the star-studded Nigerian squad that had the likes of  Jay-Jay Okocha, Daniel Amokachi and Nwankwo Kanu.

The gold medal came exactly two years after the Super Eagles were crowned African champions in 1994, where Ikpeba was also part of the golden generation of Super Eagles. 

The former Super Eagles striker sat down with CAFOnline to share his memories of the Olympics as the global showpiece edges closer over the next few months. What memories do you have of your participation in the Olympic Games in 1996?

Victor Ikpeba: Joy, I was so happy to participate. Pride too when I remember the teams that we beat, Mexico in the quarter-final, Brazil in the semi-final, then Argentina in the final. We Africans have shown that this is possible. It’s a tournament that I will never be able to forget.

Nigeria arrived in the United States with an incredible team. You were there with Jay Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu and Daniel Amokachi. When you get together, do you talk about the good old days?

Yes! We just become kids again. A few months ago, we were invited to Cameroon by the a gala match against the 2000 generation of the Indomitable Lions, for a remake of our African Cup of Nations final. I can tell you that it was as if we had never left each other. There is a lot of respect between us, we support each other from our different backgrounds, that gold medal has undoubtedly bonded us. I think it would be good to set up a WhatsApp group, just to check in on each other more often.

How have these Olympic Games been a plus for you?

In my career, there was a before and after Atlanta 1996. At that time I played for AS Monaco in France. The year before our victory at the Olympics, my statistics were not so great. I played 23 matches and scored 6 goals. When I returned from Atlanta, I played 44 matches and scored 22 goals. I gained confidence and more professionalism. For me, there was a before and after the Olympics.

What do the Olympic Games represent to you?

For all athletes it is an accomplishment. It is the most followed event on the planet. This makes us even more patriotic because we want to place our country on the Olympic map.

Imagine winning them like we did in 1996, it’s even more special. People look at you differently because you are an Olympic champion.

Where is your gold medal now?

I carefully hid it at home (laughs).

When did you tell yourself that you were going to be crowned Olympic champion?

During our semi-final against Brazil. It may seem like it does not make sense  because on paper, we were not the favorites. It was that golden generation with the likes of  Bebeto, Roberto Carlos and Rivaldo. In addition, we had lost against them a few days earlier in a group match. But, God was Nigerian that day (laughs). We trailed 3-1 then equalized 3-3 to win in 4-3 in extra-time.

We are qualified for the final stage. And as they say, a final is not played, it is won.

In your opinion, what are the key requirements to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games?

You have to work constantly and have faith in your talent. For those who play in a team sport, such as football, have confidence in your teammates. It is important to be one when participating in this type of tournament.

How was the return to Nigeria?

I didn't have the chance to experience that. With Wilson Oruma we had to quickly join our respective clubs. So we took the same flight as the French Olympic team. I think the French had a lot of medals. We didn't sleep on the plane because the party was so good. (laughs). 

During the tournament we had news from the country. After our victory against Brazil, Nigeria was abuzz. The country did not sleep, everyone was outside. Young people, old people, men, women, all religions -  everyone was happy. 

It was so beautiful. Here I am talking to you about what was happening in Nigeria, but I cannot forget the support from the continent. We received messages from our brothers from Ghana, Cameroon, Benin, Egypt, all the African people were behind us and also the African diaspora present in the United States who massively supported us.

The three teams qualified for Paris 2024 are Morocco, Egypt and Mali. Guinea might be able to qualify via the play-off. In your opinion, what do you make of Africa’s chances?

Yes, yes and yes ! We no longer have any complexes. But, the boys must believe strongly in it and never give up. It is Cameroon and us, it is time to have a third nation. One thing is certain: they will be supported. 

There are many Moroccans and Malians in France, it is an asset that they can use. I am sad about only one thing: the absence of Nigeria.

My daughter lives in Lyon. Now that I'm a grandfather, I want to watch some matches with my grandchildren. This competition in France will be fantastic, I am firmly convinced of it.

Any advice for the African countries involved in this tournament?

Play together ! The quality is there and above all, have fun!