What some people won’t do to avoid visiting Los Angeles.
To the recently growing list of canceled vacations and relocated conventions, add this:
A lunging, last-minute, 23-yard goal between three defenders by a player whose team had essentially already won.
Sad, but true. Just listen to Nigerian Coach Clemens Westerhof, whose team defeated Greece, 2-0, in the final first-round World Cup match Thursday.
In the 88th minute, with Nigeria leading, 1-0, and stalling away the final moments, a sideline policeman informed Westerhof that in the other Group D game, Bulgaria had just upset Argentina, 2-0.
If that score remained the same, a stunned Westerhof realized his team would be third-place team and go to Pasadena for a second-round game with Romania.
However, if the team could score one more goal in the remaining couple of minutes, it could win Group D, remain at Foxboro Stadium and face Italy in the second round.
So what if Italy is considered a tougher team than Romania? That was nothing compared to the dreaded prospects of stepping off a plane at LAX.
“I heard the Bulgaria score, I called Daniel Amokachi over to the bench, and I gave him instructions,” Westerhof said.
And simple instructions they were.
“I told him, ‘Stand in front of the goal and, for God’s sake, score! Score, or we are going to Los Angeles!’ ” Westerhof related.
It is unknown whether it was Westerhof’s frantic tone of voice or the words, “Los Angeles” that convinced Amokachi to listen.
But after cruising through the game with only two shots, this prolific scorer quickly found another gear.
In the fourth minute of extra time, exactly one minute before the referee would end the game, Amokachi took a pass from Mile Emenalo. He dribbled 10 yards across the field while avoiding three sliding tackles.
Then he sent a shot into the upper left-hand corner past bewildered Christos Karkamanis, the third Greek goalkeeper in as many games.
“I just did it to make my coach happy,” Amokachi said, shrugging. “He tell me I got to score, I got to score.”
At the time, it appeared to be no more than a game-cinching goal. But after dancing into each other’s arms and circling the field before 53,001, the Nigerians explained its importance.
“We did not want to go to Los Angeles, no way,” midfielder Sunday Oliseh said. “What is that, about a seven-hour flight? It took us 13 hours just to get to America.
“No Los Angeles for us. We don’t care who we play, we don’t want to go right there.”
So they will take a tougher road Tuesday against an Italian club that traditionally turns up the heat after the first round.
This time, they say they will have their minds on the game, unlike Thursday.
When Westerhof walked into the locker room for a pregame pep talk, he said he found a team that was talking more about the suspension of Argentine star Diego Maradona than Greece.
“I had to cause some tension in there,” Westhof said, smiling. “So I did.”
The pep talk became a pep scolding. And even then, his talented team didn’t score until the the second extra minute at the end of the first half. The goal came on a chip shot by Finidi George after a brilliant run by Emmanuel Amunike.
“We score in extra time in the first half, and extra time in the second half, that tells me that maybe we aren’t ready,” Westerhof said. “This team should know that nobody underestimates us anymore.”
The Greeks cannot say the same. They fly back to Athens as the worst of eight teams that did not survive the first round, outscored 10-0, the only team that did not score despite taking 34 shots in three games.
Three of those shots came during a furious six-minute stretch late in the game, when they obviously were trying to go home with at least one souvenir.
But Nigerian goalkeeper Peter Rufai made a diving save on a close chip by Panagiotis Tsalouhidis. Then Tsalouhidis was wide left on a header.
Vassilis Dimitriadis was then barely beaten to a loose ball by Rufai, causing the largely Greek crowd to groan for the final time while Dimitriadis shook his fist in the air.
“At least today, people see that we are trying,” defender Minas Handzitis said.
The Nigerians are trying too, at least when they deem it necessary. And if they want to reach their stated goal, they had better deem it necessary pretty quick.
“We think we can make the final four,” Westerhof said.
Why not aim for the final two? Well, you know where that game is being played.