Julius Aghahowa enjoyed a seven-year international career and gained icon status on the back of impactful cameos at key moments.
Big game player: 3 times birthday boy Aghahowa was clutch for Super Eagles
As the Nigeria icon turns 40, a look back on some of his most impactful moments in green and white
That most of his goals for the Super Eagles came in tournament play is proof positive of his penchant for the big occasion. His trademark somersaults and speed in attack will not be forgotten in a hurry.
Here are three unforgettable moments in which Aghahowa came clutch for Nigeria, answering the call when the nation needed him the most.
Late equaliser (v Senegal, 2002 AFCON)
By this point, Senegal’s golden generation had come together quite nicely under Frenchman Bruno Metsu. They approached this semi-final with revenge on their minds, having suffered defeat at the hands of Nigeria in the 2000 edition, but also aiming to prove they had come of age on the African scene.
Sure enough, what followed was an assertive performance from the Teranga Lions. With the Super Eagles looking off colour, Senegal took the lead early in the second half thanks to a towering header by Papa Bouba Diop from a corner kick.
In a low-scoring tournament, it seemed like that would be enough, especially as there was little coming back by way of resistance from Nigeria.
However, two minutes from time, up stepped Aghahowa.
A ball flicked in behind the Senegal defence seemed to have been taken care of by defender Lamine Diatta. However, Aghahowa had made a career out of fighting for scraps, and chased after what seemed like a lost cause. Managing to contort his body around Diatta’s sizeable frame, the striker hooked a finish underneath the advancing goalkeeper Tony Sylva to level the score and take the game into extra time.
Nigeria would ultimately lose the game (with Aghahowa getting sent off), but his late heroics at least gave them life for another 30 minutes.
Johnny on the spot to take the group (v Liberia, 2002 AFCON)
Look, the 2002 AFCON was just a shockingly bad tournament. It averaged 1.5 goals per game, which tells you all you need to know.
Anyway, the point here is that one goal was often enough to win most matches. And so it proved for all of Nigeria’s four wins in the tournament.
Going into their final group match, the Super Eagles had accrued four points already – via a wasteful win over Algeria and a fortunate draw against host nation Mali. A win was needed against Liberia, not only for morale back home and in the squad, but also to secure top spot and avoid a meeting with South Africa.
What followed was a quite forgettable match, with the Super Eagles struggling for inspiration against a George Weah-inspired Lone Star.
So when Aghahowa popped up at the back post with a header to win the game after a cross was deflected into his path, it came as a massive relief for Shaibu Amodu’s team.
Deliverance in Lagos (v Senegal, 2000 AFCON)
This was the game that pretty much launched the legend of Aghahowa.
This was a very different team to the one that would go on to reach the AFCON final two years later and shock the world. Under Peter Schnittger, this was a much more defensive side, and so when they took a shock lead against the Super Eagles in the seventh minute, the platform was there to defend with their lives for the rest of the game.
They almost pulled it off too: Nigeria were having an off-colour game, were without captain Sunday Oliseh (from the start at least) and had Jay-Jay Okocha sent off in the course of the proceedings.
The game seemed to be ticking toward an ignominious exit until Aghahowa was thrown into the fray. What followed was a redemptive display that has since passed into folklore.
With five minutes to play, Aghahowa rolled a defender to latch on to a long pass, steadied himself and fired into the near post to bring Nigeria level, sparking scenes of relief.
Two minutes into extra time, the turnaround was complete. A low cross from the left by substitute Emmanuel Amuneke fell to Aghahowa inside the box. The striker took a touch to wrong-foot the goalkeeper, before sending the goalkeeper the wrong way with a left-footed finish that saw the Lagos crowd spill onto the pitch in exultation.