Barring 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 state straight away that I am in absolute support of that decision, even as I also know that the debate about his suitability or not for the position will be heated in the media for several months to come.
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 a 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 with Methodist Boys’ High School in Lagos, as a player with Eko Hotel FC and, finally, with Julius Berger FC. It was in Julius Berger FC that he was discovered by scouts that had come into the country from Belgium looking for another player, Jide Oguntuase. They saw Oliseh play against Bendel Insurance FC and score two beautiful goals, shooting from long distances to goal. That was the turning point for him.
Within weeks, Oliseh had abandoned his law programme at the Lagos State University to join Victor Ikpeba in Standard Liege FC as his first step in a successful professional football career that would last 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, packed to the brim 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 nine years, he became a permanent fixture in the heart of the defense of the best and most successful national team in the country’s history. For four of those years he was the team’s captain.
I was lucky to have been one of the 80,000 persons who witnessed a ‘masterclass’ that day, how one man dominated a match so completely with his performance. This young, tall, straggling unknown Nigerian footballer tore the Ethiopian opposition to shreds 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 (and wrote about it also in my newspaper columns) 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. It was a virtuoso display. He did everything correctly – tracking and marking, avoiding unnecessary tackles in dangerous areas, carrying the ball and moving up the field, floating excellent passes to team mates upfront with amazing precision, and, finally, firing accurate pile drivers from long range at the opposing goal!
Till 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 clubs and for his country for several years.
In the 1998 World Cup, 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 first 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 of Mass Destruction!
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 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 imbibe in them the winning spirit! That’s why, today, most of the world’s most successful coaches are very intellectually sharp and very 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. Requirements essential here are 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 into 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 the opportunity of this his greatest challenge becomes the moment of his greatest triumph.