It is probably the most technical position in a football team. It requires that a player have the physical and mental stamina to defend, to create and to attack. That’s why there are not too many such players that have been truly exceptional in Nigeria’s football history. They are not easy to find. The successful ones, therefore, must be consistent in their performance and must have longevity and do not play below a certain minimal level from match to match. In considering how good a defensive midfield player is, it is important to also consider the era of football at the time. In the 1960s, a defensive midfield player was almost 100 % a defender, hardly venturing forward, focusing on helping the back four by clearing the balls up front.
In the 1970s and 1980s, with the coming of several European coaches from Germany and Yugoslavia (Heinz Marotske, Yelisavic Tiko and so on) into Nigerian football additional responsibilities of destroying opposition strategies, organizing the midfield, starting attacks from the back, linking with the front line and even scoring goals, have been added. All of these will obviously go into the reckoning of respondents based on their experiences. But one thing is common to all, the truly gifted defensive midfielders across all the generations stand out, separated by their longevity, efficiency and productivity.
A rough chronological exercise is important here.
Between 1960 and 1973 Godwin Achebe, played as Captain and defensive midfielder for the Green Eagles of Nigeria. He was absent from the national team for 4 years during the Civil war, but returned to captain the team again. He led the Green Eagles to win the Gold Medal of the 2nd All-African Games in Lagos.
After him, for a brief but interesting period, was Sani Mohammed of Stationary Stores and the Green Eagles. He took over from Godwin Achebe but relinquished the role after two years to Mudashiru Lawal.
Muda played mostly in that position for the country from 1975 to 1984.
Then came several players that manned the position for brief periods but did not own it – Ademola Adesina, Paul Okoku, and Mutiu Adepoju.
Had Paul Okoku not travelled for studies to the US he, probably, would have played that role for a longer time. He was brilliant and was born for that position.
The moment Sunday Oliseh appeared on the scene he did not relinquish the role again. After Oliseh, a few players played in that position but never owned it, from Ayinla Yusuf, to Seyi Olofinjana, and one or two others, before Mikel Obi was converted to that position in 2007 by Jose Mourinho. He was adopted by Nigeria as the country’s defensive midfield general for most of his career playing for the Super Eagles. A few others have played in that position since then, but surely did not do enough for consideration amongst the greatest in Nigeria’s football history since Independence in 1960. And that includes Wilfred Ndidi who is doing a great job now, but still has some way to go. I called up several persons, many of them for the first time in this ongoing series of conversations, for their choice of the greatest in 60 years. Shockingly, no one even mentions Mikel Obi who was touted recently as ‘the greatest Nigerian player ever’ by ‘The Bull’ in terms of medals and trophies he won. I decide that this conversation will not be complete without getting the opinion of Daniel Amokachi. So, I call him up and make life easier for him: he would not know Godwin Achebe; he saw Muda Lawal play in the ‘evening’ of his football; he played with Sunday Oliseh and coached Mikel Obi; so, between Mikel and Oliseh who would he rate as the better defensive midfield player?
All their responses:
- Adekunle Raji, (Kantara) – Sports Consultant,
Mudashiru Lawal – He brought finesse to midfield play with his ball control and passing skills. He was a consistent player and played for a long time. Every coach could not resist him because he would always play within a range. Incredible stamina and never stopped running, always moving. Always knew what he would do on the field.
Sunday Oliseh. A master at made-to-measure long range passes and he connected beautifully with Rashidi Yekini in that era. Remembered for that once-in-a blue-moon shot against Spain. Not much after that. Although he got the job done, he was not particularly skillful.
The greatest in this position must have something extra to offer. So, Muda Lawal is it with the edge for those that saw him play.
- Ayo Iroche – Former Sports Administrator, Communications consultant
Godwin Achebe was a born leader. He led the Green Eagles to Nigeria’s first international trophy – the All African Games Gold. He always stood tall, read the game very well and controlled the team. Confident and had ability to hold and shield the ball that no one could dispossess him of it. Great distributor of the ball.
Sani Mohammed – He was cool, very calm, fought for the ball, almost like Muda Lawal, but without his passes and endless chasing of the ball.
Muda Lawal was very good, better than all the others except Achebe. Muda was calm, could also the read the game, fought for every ball and led by example on the field.
Sunday Oliseh was a very good player but very temperamental. A good captain must always bring his team together and never lose his cool on the field of play even when his passes are not well connected, or when a team mate falters. He does not recover quickly to defend when his team loses possession.
Wilfred Ndidi. Still young. With time he will do better. He needs to move to a bigger better European club and then he will come into reckoning in the future.
My choice – Godwin Achebe
- Admiral Jubril Ayinla – Former Chief of Naval Staff, Sports Admnistrator
Godwin Achebe played in an era when defensive-midfielders were basically defenders clearing the balls from defense in the kick-and-follow style of play.
There was no transition in those days, carrying the ball from defense to attack. So, you can’t rate him as much as Muda Lawal.
Muda Lawal is head and shoulders above the rest.
His leadership qualities were first class. He was very mature as a player and carried the rest of the team along during a match. He marshalled the players.
Sunday Oliseh is also very good in his time but, on the balance of performance, it is Muda Lawal.
- Tosin Adebambo – Ex-Shooting Stars Int. USA-based
‘Baba Yara of Stationary Stores, George Hassan of Asaba Textiles, Sani Mohammed of Stationary Stores, Sebastian Broderick of Bendel Insurance, Sylvanus Okala of Enugu Rangers, Shafiu Mohammed of Raccah Rovers, Nwabueze Nwankwo of Enugu Rangers, Nathaniel Adewole of Shooting Stars, were all great defensive midfield players for their clubs and the country.
The final name, but not the least, in this great assembly is the defensive and attacking midfield ace, Muda Lawal.
But the greatest defensive-midfielder of the generations, minus the offensive sphere of the game, would wholeheartedly go to Sunday Oliseh – he is the best I have seen’.
- Kweku Tandoh – Former Exec. Chairman Lagos State Sports Commission, and sports consultant
‘Sunday Oliseh was a thinking footballer and there were not too many of them in the world.
These are footballers who would have thought through in their heads what they are about to do with the ball and have already seen the ‘end result’ of that move even before the move is made.
Sometimes they are even able to predict the ‘play’ of their opponents, like a Chess Grandmaster.
Sunday Oliseh was one of such footballers. Others in that mould include Socrates of Brazil, Marco Van Basten of the Netherland, Franz Berkenbauer of Germany and Ruud Gullit of the Netherland.
My Choice – Sunday Oliseh’
- Daniel ‘The Bull’ Amokachi – Ex-international player and coach, Football Ambassador
‘I will fly with Sunday Oliseh. Sunday and Mikel Obi played a similar kind of football. They both protected the ball well and gave nice penetrative passes. Oliseh was more aggressive going forward. His contribution to our generation was massive. The great passes he placed behind defenders for Rashidi Yekini upfront, and to the flanks for Finidi and Amuneke stand out.
He is more of a leader even though both of them were captains. Oliseh would shout at players, referees and everyone because he was a bit temperamental and wanted to win everything. That is the quality of a good leader. He was more outspoken too. He told it the way it is.
So, between the two of them, I would give it to Sunday Oliseh’.