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Eagles grounded as Baggio wakes

After Cameroon's dramatic run to the quarter-finals of the 1990 FIFA World Cup™, there were high hopes for Africa's representatives at USA 1994. The continent had three places for the first time and the Indomitable Lions were there again, still with the evergreen Roger Milla, as well as Morocco, who had become the first African side to reach the second round in 1986, and, finally, newcomers Nigeria.

One of the biggest mysteries going into the tournament, the Super Eagles turned out to be the break-out stars of the bunch, surpassing by some way Cameroon and Morocco who claimed only a point between them. By advancing to the second round – where they would be felled by the just-stirring giant that was Italy – the green-clad Nigerians captured the imagination and kept alive African football's exciting emergence. Join FIFA.com as we look back at the match that ultimately shattered their American dream and launched the Roberto Baggio-inspired Azzurri on their way to the Final.

The stakes
In the short view, a place in the last eight was riding on the last-16 tie between Nigeria and Italy at Foxboro Stadium outside of Boston. In the long view, Nigeria stood at the precipice of history, within touching distance of Cameroon's achievement of four years before with a guaranteed spot in the pantheon if they could overcome the three-time world champions.

The Super Eagles had served notice of their intentions in the US with a resounding 3-0 defeat of eventual semi-finalists Bulgaria in their opener. That match provided Nigeria with perhaps their most memorable FIFA World Cup moment: Rasheed Yekini's ecstatic celebration – arms through the net, tearfully clutching his face – after scoring his country's first-ever finals goal. The west Africans recovered from a subsequent narrow 2-1 loss to Argentina with a 2-0 win over group whipping boys Greece to finish top of the table on goal difference and were now poised to pluck the Italians from the vine.

If the Nigerians were surprised to have the world's gaze turned on them, the Azzurri, who had finished third as hosts four years earlier, were mortified by their performance to that point. They had yet to fully recover their way after a stunning 1-0 loss to the Republic of Ireland, and their golden boy, Baggio, had yet to find the net despite being one of the most heralded stars heading into the finals. The Italians beat Norway and drew with Mexico to limp into the second round as one of the better third-placed sides. But by the end of their extra-time slugfest with Nigeria, the Europeans and their striking talisman would start to look more and more like the slow-starting, Paulo Rossi-led champions of Spain 1982.

The story
Italy pressed hard right from the start to try to unsettle their less experienced rivals. Wearing all white instead of their usual blue, they found a few early half-chances, but it was the confident Africans who struck against the run of play. Finidi George's whipped-in corner in the 25th minute was deflected by captain Paolo Maldini straight into the path of Emmanuel Amunike. The 23-year-old reacted instinctively in the six-yard box, flicking the ball past the outrushing goalkeeper with the outside of his left boot.

Arrigo Sacchi's Italy were hardly built for offensive firepower, especially with Baggio shaken, and a brutally hot day did them no favours. Full of self-belief, the Nigerians defended solidly even without usual captain Stephen Keshi, who had been left on the bench by coach Clemens Westerhof, while central midfielders Jay Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh – aged just 20 and 19 respectively – were strong and supremely comfortable on the ball.

George and Amunike offered Nigeria pace in abundance down the flanks, and the threat of counterattack kept the Europeans off balance for the rest of the first half and into the second. Most of Italy's threats were coming from set-pieces, the most promising a short corner that worked its way to Dino Baggio at the right post, but goalkeeper Peter Rufai made a spectacular reaction save to his left.

Things got even worse for Italy in the 75th minute when Gianfranco Zola was sent off just 10 minutes after coming on as a substitute. The diminutive forward had undoubtedly unleashed a rash attempt at a tackle on Augustine Eguavoen after losing the ball in the Nigeria area, and he crumpled to the pitch crying "no, no, no". In disbelief, Zola stood by the touchline refusing the leave as Nigerian players offered their condolences. Italy, however, continued to dictate the action as Nigeria retreated into their own half to run out the clock. They were just two minutes away from doing that when Baggio began his march into the history books.

A quick move down the right fed Roberto Mussi, who did well to carry the ball into the box. He slid it perfectly into the path of Baggio, who forgot his struggles and with his first touch calmly slotted the ball inside the left post from 14 yards out. The 'Divine Ponytail' was in full swing, celebrating for the first time in the tournament – just when needed most. And after Dino Baggio's flicked ball into the box for Antonio Benarrivo drew a clear penalty in extra time, there was no question who would take it. Undone with two minutes to go in regulation time, Nigeria could find no way back despite an ugly late miss by Yekini, and the day belonged to Baggio.

The star
The joy that swept Roberto Baggio's face after his equaliser had handed Italy a lifeline was clear and obvious. But there was also a determination there, a look that was still in place when he put the ball on the spot for his 100th-minute penalty kick. Just like his equalising shot seemed to have eyes of its own, his penalty pinged off the inside of the post with the goalkeeper left lunging the other way. Form restored, Baggio went on to strike the winner in the quarter-finals against Spain and a brace against Bulgaria in the last four.

What they said
"The game is never finished until the referee blows the last whistle. You don't rejoice. We were holding the ball, playing tap-tap-tap, and we just lost concentration. When you have players like Baggio, they punish you for mistakes like that," Nigeria midfielder Finidi George.

What happened next?
After leading the Azzurri to the Final against Brazil, a partially fit Baggio missed the last spot-kick of a post-match shoot-out to hand the South Americans the USA 94 title. Italy would have to wait until Germany 2006 to win their fourth world crown. Nigeria coach Westerhof resigned soon after the match, but their surprise performance in the United States gave way to perhaps their finest moment – a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Football Tournament. They would make the second round just as impressively at France 98 only to crash out 4-1 to Denmark.

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Published in Historical Matches