Baring any unforeseen circumstances the news of Sunday Oliseh’s appointment as Manager of the Super Eagles would have been announced by the Nigeria Football Federation by the time you are reading this. Let me also state clearly why I am adding my voice to those that think he deserves to be the next Manager of the Super Eagles and worthy successor to Stephen Keshi, the most successful manager in the history of Nigerian football.
The very first time I saw Sunday Oliseh was in 1993. He came in almost from the blues! Even as a member of the board of the Nigeria Football Association at the time I was not privy to his rise through the ranks in domestic Nigerian football even though that was his foundation. I learnt later that he went through the mill – as a student player and briefly as a club player before he abandoned his law programme at the Lagos State University whisked off to Europe by Belgian scouts that had come looking for another player before they saw him play in a domestic league match and were hooked by his brilliant display. Within weeks Oliseh joined Victor Ikpeba in Standard Liege FC in his first step in a successful professional football career that would span over 12 years.
Clemens Westerhof, the Dutch coach of the Green Eagles, as the national team of Nigeria was known at the time, had either seen or heard about the young man and his exploits in Belgium. He launched Oliseh’s international career by inviting him to an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Ethiopia in Lagos in 1993. I remember that match very clearly. Oliseh had sauntered unheralded and unknown onto the lush green turf of the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, jam packed with fanatical fans, a vociferous army of die-hard supporters that had made the venue a ‘slaughter-house’ for visiting teams. When Oliseh left the pitch 90 minutes later he had become a national hero, and for the next 9 years a permanent fixture in the heart of the defense of the best and most successful national team in the country’s history. For 4 of those years he was the team’s captain.
I was lucky to have been one of the 80,000 persons that day that witnessed a ‘masterclass’, how one man dominated a match so completely with his performance and tore to shreds with his immaculate passing and shooting skills the Ethiopian opposition, in his debut match for his country and probably his best match ever! Ethiopia would never forget what hit them that day. I told everyone who cared to listen after the match that Sunday Oliseh’s performance that evening was the most complete demonstration of how the defensive midfield position should be played. It was the closest thing to a flawless performance – a virtuoso display. To this day I have kept the video recording of that match in my film archives as a tutorial for players, coaches and scholars of football on how a player should play the defensive midfield position. Oliseh repeated that feat for several European clubs and for his country for several years. In 1998, at the peak of his career, he scored a goal against Spain, a well-struck cracker of a shot from outside the box that reverberated around the football world. It was a pile driver that zoomed into the Spanish goal like a fired cannon. That goal was considered one of the best goals of France ’98! Throughout Nigeria’s golden era of the 1990s Oliseh was a key component of the country’s midfield. Although he left the national team following spats with the administrators of the time, nothing can diminish his personal contributions to the unprecedented successes of Nigeria’s national teams in Tunisia ’94, USA ’94, Atlanta ‘96 and France ’98!
After retiring from the game, Oliseh went on to resume his academic pursuits by completing his once abandoned degree programme and obtaining the highest European coaching licenses. It is this side of him that has fascinated me the most through the years that I have watched him from a distance. He is really smart and an intellectual, a trait he demonstrated on the field of play in the manner he played football – as much with his brains as with his feet! He was a player with an uncanny vision. He always knew what to do with the ball even before it got to him. He ‘saw’ gaps in opposing defenses that he exploited with accurate telegraphic passes over long and short distances once the ball got to his feet. His passes usually left opposing defenders stranded. That was how Rashidi Yekini became Nigeria’s most successful goal scorer. Oliseh’s long range ‘missiles’ delivered the payload that made Yekini Nigeria’s deadliest Weapon.
The Next Level
Sunday Oliseh’s deep thinking, honed undoubtedly by his academic scholarship, now gives him the edge to possibly take Nigerian football to the next level. He is like a good chess player that requires the ability to see several steps ahead of every single move, even before it is made! Beyond the invaluable experiences of having played as vastly as he did under renowned European coaches, acquired the best academic and professional credentials in football coaching, taught football to youngsters in academies and worked with a few clubs in Belgium, he brings a new dimension to football with the depth of his analytical mind. So brilliant and well-informed have his writings, his commentaries and analysis of matches been during recent international matches that he has risen steadily to become a consultant analyst to several international media (including Supersports) and a very valued member of the FIFA Technical Study group.
Some critics say he has very little experience coaching at national team level. True, but I respond that too many coaches with decades of ‘experience’ have let us down too many times in the past. We have toyed with their archaic ways and limited knowledge long enough to know that’s not the way to go this time around. At national team level it is less about coaching skills and more about managerial ability and how to identify those that fit into a team strategy. It is a psychological game of wits and wisdom, how to motivate players and make them play beyond their normal capacities, how to discipline players and engrain in them the winning spirit! That’s why, today, most of the world’s most successful coaches are very intellectually sharp and young – Pep Guardiola, Luis Henrique, Jurgen Klinsman, Sunday Oliseh, and so on! I also remind critics that at the national team level the coach does not have the luxury to teach players anything. His work is cut out for him. He only has a minimum number of days before matches to make an impact, to assemble the players and to make them play at maximum capacity as a unit.
What is essential here? In my opinion is a sharp manager in control, a motivator, a respected disciplinarian, one with a clear vision and the skills to manage big egos and instill confidence, the winning spirit, focus and his own team strategy and tactics. The coach that Nigeria needs now, therefore, is one with the capacity to do all of this in a few short days between matches and still win! Without victories on the field of play everything else pales to insignificance. That’s why, even as I celebrate Sunday Oliseh’s coming, I feel very sorry for him. He is coming into Nigerian football when the production room of exceptional players through the domestic leagues has almost dried up. My prayer for him is that this opportunity of his greatest challenge becomes the moment of his greatest triumph.