Sunday Oliseh: From Super Eagle to African Pioneer

tmp_140422123725-sunday-oliseh-h2h-denmark-horizontal-gallery-413066694When Sunday Oliseh was a young boy kicking a football around
the dusty streets of Lagos, he never dreamed he would one day carry the
hopes of 170 million people on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
“As a child, the World Cup was something that was not for us but for
others,” says the man who became one of Nigeria’s pioneering football
exports. “It was something like a mirage for my nation until my generation came
around. “Indeed, football was not even considered a respectable profession in the
Oliseh household. “For my parents growing up, football was taboo and you could
understand them because way back then, in Africa, nobody made a living
out of playing football,” the 39-year-old tells CNN’s Human to Hero
series .

“For my parents, there was no way you could play football because
you’re going to grow up, become older and be unemployed, so you had
to be schooled and I really thanked them because it’s made me get that
education that has helped me to manage myself as an adult.
“In the do-or-die world of football, if you’re not really educated and
paper smart, you could sign contracts that will hurt you forever, so I
thank them immensely.” Oliseh quickly won over his parents when he earned a contract at local
club Julius Berger. Now known as Bridge Boys, it has provided a stepping stone to bigger things for a long line of international players. “I remember coming home with my first wages and my father called my
brothers and said, ‘Look, your brother is earning way, way more than I earned as an accountant for his first contract,’ ” Oliseh recalls. “That’s when we were just like, ‘Wow, there’s something starting here.’ ”
It was a journey that would take him far from home — to
clubs in Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands.
Oliseh, a defensive midfielder, would captain his country, win
an Olympic gold medal, and star at World Cups in the United
States and France.
African nations had regularly appeared at the World Cup since
the 1970s, but Nigeria had to wait until 1994 for its first
The scene was the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, and the opponent
was a star-studded Bulgaria team that would go on to reach
the semifinals.
“We were so nervous,” Oliseh says. “The men’s room was
filled up before the game.”
The talented Super Eagles (and their bladders) needn’t have
been so concerned.
Oliseh and co. powered to an impressive 3-0 victory and
topped the group despite losing to an Argentina team
captained by Diego Maradona.
“I got the opportunity to rub shoulders with the player whose poster was
on my wall at the time,” Oliseh says.
“He was the best player of our generation. That was when it dawned on
me that I was ready for the big league.”
The Super Eagles lost to eventual runner-up Italy after extra time in the
last 16, but their swashbuckling style captured the imagination of fans
around the world and set the tone for a golden age of Nigerian football.
Next came Olympic success at Atlanta ’96, beating Argentina 3-2 in the
final with a last-gasp winner.
“My parents called me the next day and said, ‘Son, you owe us money!’
and I said, “How come Papa and Mama?” and they said, ‘All the
neighbors have been here drinking so when you come back, you have to
pay us back!’
“Nigeria went crazy. The President gave the whole country
two days off. No work, we had to celebrate this — so that
shows you how much it meant to my nation and to Africa.”
For Oliseh, the 1998 World Cup was even better as he scored
one of the goals of the tournament in a 3-2 win against
Spain, though Nigeria would lose heavily to Denmark in round
The goal was not only special for sending Nigeria into the
knockout stage, but also because it was predicted by former
teammate Dosu Joseph — a goalkeeper whose career was
ended by a serious car crash.
“All I could think about was, ‘Damn, Dosu Joseph said this!’
So he was the one I was running up to in the stands, to my
brother to just share the moment with them,” Oliseh says.
“And my nation was going through a dark period at the time.
Our President had just died, and this victory united our nation
These were halcyon sporting days that the football-mad
country has yet to repeat.
Oliseh helped Nigeria qualify for the 2002 World Cup, but was not
selected for the finals. As would happen again at the team’s next
appearance — at Africa’s first World Cup in 2010 — Nigeria exited at the
group stage.
But now, Africa’s most populous nation is daring to dream again. And
the omens are strong.
Just like in 1994, the Super Eagles will go into the World Cup finals as
African champions, and in Brazil they have been handed what is on
paper a favorable draw after qualifying undefeated.
Once again they will face Argentina, along with Iran and tournament
debutant Bosnia-Herzegovina in Group F.
But while the makings of a good team are there, Oliseh warns the present
squad will have to go a long way to match the vintage sides of the
“The World Cup group of 1994, as far as I see it, was the
most solid team Nigeria ever produced,” Oliseh says.
“Football in Nigeria during our generation hit the highest it
could go. It became worldwide, it became a nation of
By comparison, today’s Nigerian stars have had a head start
in making it in the game — in many ways they are standing
on the shoulders of giants.
Victor Moses, Efe Ambrose and Emmanuel Emenike all earn
big money plying their trade for Europe’s elite teams, having
been scouted and groomed from an early age.
“My generation was blessed with this burden of being
pioneers,” Oliseh says. “You didn’t have anybody who had
done it before that you could ask and say, ‘Look, what is it
“When I went to the Italian league I was the first — I had no
other Nigerian to call up and say, ‘How did you cope?’ ”
No matter.
With a confident and enthusiastic attitude to life, much like his playing
style, the position of nomadic footballing trailblazer suited Oliseh.
He was one of the first Nigerians to play in Belgium, spending four years
at RFC Liege before moving to Reggiana in Italy after the 1994 World
Cup. A season in Serie A was followed by a move to FC Cologne in
Germany then a sojourn in Holland with Ajax of Amsterdam.
While in the Dutch capital Oliseh would endear himself to the Ajax
faithful with his dancing goal celebrations, picking up three trophies.
Oliseh returned to Italy in 1999 for one season with Juventus before
moving back to Germany, this time with Borussia Dortmund — winning
the Bundesliga title and a runner-up medal in the UEFA Cup.
Each country provided different lessons in football and in life.
“The moment I got to Italy, then I found out football was not a pleasure,
it was business,” he says.
Germany taught him discipline and was “where my way of
living as a man was built.”
Playing for Juventus, meanwhile, enabled Oliseh to live and
play alongside legends of the modern game like Zinedine
Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero — which he describes as
“great for my own education as a person.”
While there have been many Nigerians and thousands of
Africans to follow in Oliseh’s footsteps in the 20 years since
he made the move to Europe, African national teams have not
developed in the same rapid manner.
Pele famously said an African nation would win the World
Cup before the year 2000 — a prediction that has yet to be
met. No African team has ever gone beyond the quarterfinals.
Oliseh, who has set up coaching projects in Belgium since
retiring in 2006 , has strong opinions on why this is the case.
“I think an African country will eventually win the World Cup.
What is lacking now, it’s simple to say … what is wrong is
that we don’t plan well. We leave the planning ’til late,” he
On the park, Oliseh also has a radical diagnosis for player development
and tactics.
“Africans need to learn how to start pressurizing the opponents. Football
has changed now. It’s no longer football where you pick individuals and
expect them to do well,” he says.
“Now it’s more about team work, team dynamics, team schemes, things
that are planned out. How to look at the opponent, how to bring about
antidotes to the opponent’s playing star.
“When it comes to physical strength and bursts of speed, you can’t beat
an African. But what is lacking now is just that technical and tactical
know-how. Then we’ll get it.”
Oliseh’s World Cup days may be long past, but come June and July he
will be watching events in Brazil with avid interest.
“If I was to live without football now, I think I would die — even my kids
sometimes are bored because Papa is always watching games.”

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