Stranded in Atlanta: Nightmare start for new Olympic 'Dream Team'

It's a good thing Nigeria's opening match of the Olympic men's soccer tournament against Japan in Manaus on Thursday is the last of eight opening games, kicking off at 9 p.m. local time. The Dream Team's flight from Atlanta, originally scheduled for last Friday, isn't scheduled to arrive until 2 p.m. Talk about cutting it close.

Nigeria was supposed to fly from Atlanta -- where it has been training for more than four weeks -- to Manaus on Tuesday, but payment from Nigeria's sports ministry to the charter company's bank account in Seattle didn't arrive, so the charter flight was cancelled. A flight was then scheduled for Wednesday evening, but the players apparently refused to board the 30-seater plane because it was too small.

The delays are only the latest in a series of issues that plagued Nigeria's preparations for the Rio Olympics. Four weeks ago, Coach Samson Siasia said he had not been paid in five months and complained about having to beg for money for his players.

“We will not hold the country to ransom by threatening not to play our matches," he said, "but the government has to come to our rescue. I know that by the time the Olympics will be over, our monies will not be paid.”

When you think of Nigeria and Atlanta, you think of the 1996 Olympics, the great moment in Nigerian soccer history, when Nigeria won the gold medal in men's soccer, beating Brazil 4-3 in the semifinals and Argentina 3-2 in the gold-medal game of arguably the great Olympic soccer tournament ever played.

Siasia, who has coached in the Atlanta area for many years, said the idea of training in Atlanta was to build on that Olympic success in Atlanta (more specifically, the University of Georgia's Sanford Stadium in Athens, where soccer was played).

“Coming back to Atlanta 20 years after winning the gold medal will instill confidence in our team,” said Siasia in a statement promoting his team's preparations at Silverbacks Stadium. "The summer climate, which is similar to Rio’s, will allow the team to further build physically and mentally every day that we train. We want to show what the Nigerian soccer team is capable of doing on the world stage.”

The 1996 Super Eagles featured Nwankwo Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Daniel Amokachi and Emmanuel Amuneke and a host of other stars from the greatest Nigerian team ever assembled.

The current team is led by longtime national team star John Obi Mikel, one of three overage players, but the stars are a pair of 19-year-old attackers, winger Azubuike Okechukwu and 6-foot-3 Umar Sadiq. They aren't the youngest players on the team, though. It features Saturday Erimuya and Sincere Muenfuh, both 18, and Ndifreke Udo, 17.

Such is the depth of Nigerian talent that no players from Nigeria's 2015 U-17 World Cup championship team are on the Olympic team. They were with Nigeria's U-20s, who were stunned by Sudan in July in qualifying for the 2017 Under-20 Africa Cup of Nations.

Nigeria's financial problems are nothing new. In 2013, the national team went on strike and missed their scheduled flight to the Confederations Cup in Brazil. The Super Eagles flew out from Nigeria two days later before their opening game, which they won, 6-1, over Tahiti.
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