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Odegbami: The Perfect Defensive Midfield Player – Ogochukwu!

Odegbami: The Perfect Defensive Midfield Player – Ogochukwu!

It is very hard to find anything to write about that are physically and spiritually uplifting since the global cessation of all sports-related activities. Every subject matter is drowned by the unprecedented fear, panic, desperation, public unrest in many parts, hunger, disease and even deaths, related or unrelated to the dreaded scourge of humanity – the Covid-19 virus – that pervades the entire planet.

I keep my own spirit lifted by recalling Late Nelson Mandela’s words cast on marble: ‘Sport has the power to change the world’. I use them as fuel for my spirit, constantly tasking my creativity to find something, anything, that will reduce the psychological effect of this unwanted pandemic. With sport rendered impotent, I go back to history to drink from the well of nostalgia, from the great deeds of sporting heroes of the past who illuminated our lives with virtuoso performances that have kept the flame of hope alive that we shall overcome and become a great global Black nation one day when we put our acts together.

Sport is that constant reminder of who we are, and what we are capable of achieving as a country and as a people. We have the greatest resource of all to achieve these – humans with abundant capacity.

Today, I want to take a sip from my experience of 17 years ago, when, as one of some 35,000 spectators in the terraces of the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos, I watched a young Nigerian football player, only 19 years old at the time, ignite the fire of a whole new generation and provided the last missing jigsaw in a team that Clemens Westerhof had been putting together for almost 4 years.

I am not so sure that every Nigerian saw what I saw on that day, but it remains etched on my mind. I believe that day was the real beginning of an unprecedented era in Nigeria’s football history. True, what happened on that date was a collective team work, an all-round fantastic performance with all the players at their best, but one star shone brighter than the others in the constellation.

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It was July 24, 1993.
I remember that day like yesterday. It was an African Cup of Nations qualifying match against the Walias of Ethiopia. The Super Eagles won very easily, a high scoring 6-0 victory.

What caught the eye particularly on that day, was this prodigious young player who was making his debut appearance for the Green Eagles. For 90 minutes he gave a virtuoso performance. On that day the search for a worthy successor for the ‘irreplaceable’ Mudashiru Babatunde Tiamiyu Lawal at the defensive midfield position, Number 4, ended.


That Clemens Westerhof gave a debutant the opportunity to start in a position that was one of the most technical in any team, that required special traits and talents, meant that the player must be good.

Nigeria had a well-established tradition of excellent defensive midfield players – strong, skillful, great passing ability, great tackling skills, a good vision, good passes and critical transition skills of linking attack and defense.

Even today, as one goes through the list of those that have played that position, a picture emerges of the quality that has always been needed to play in that position. Let’s start from the present and go backwards.

Today, that position is held by a player considered to be one of the very best in the English Premiership, and touted to be a contestant for the best in Europe – Wilfred Ndidi.

Before Ndidi, for several years, there was John Mikel Obi, a world class defensive midfielder converted to that role by the ‘Special One’, Jose Mourinho. There was also Ogenyi Onazi who held his own until an injury sidelined him.

Before them, way back into the history of defensive midfield play, were exceptionally gifted players that included Sani Mohammed, Nwabueze Nwankwo, Mudashiru Lawal, Christian Madu, Ademola Adesina, Paul Okoku, Mutiu Adepoju, all truly terrific players.

To be given that shirt could only have meant one thing – that Sunday Ogochukwu Oliseh was really good.

On that fateful day, I watched a performance such as I had not seen before then, nor probably since. If near perfection was possible in football, that was it.

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Oliseh hardly put a foot wrong on his debut for Nigeria. He put up what must go down as a masterclass on defensive midfield play. His every touch and move were flawless. He tackled intelligently and cleanly. He shielded the ball effectively when in possession. He did not hold on to the ball unnecessarily, releasing it quickly and with deadly precision. He delivered short and long passes with both feet. He had an effective dribble and shot well from a distance. His transition with the ball from defense to attack was slick and a beauty to watch. After his limited forays upfront, he returned quickly to be in the first line of defense when the team lost possession.

Was he playing from instinct or following the coach’s instruction? Either way, it was a perfect interpretation.

The greatest beneficiary of his immaculate display was marksman, Rashidi Yekini, who was in his full element on the day, capitalising on the brilliant passes lofted from Oliseh’s feet as if measured with a tape, and delivered safely onto his running path behind the Ethiopian defenders that did not know what hit them, until they had produced 3 of the 6 un-answered goals that were scored on that day.

The whole team played very well on that day, and Oliseh’s contribution to the overall performance was huge. He shone like a million stars.

For most of the years after that day Oliseh owned that position until 2002 when he was unceremoniously dropped by Coach Adegboye Onigbinde on the eve of the Korea/Japan World Cup for reasons unconnected to his consistent good performances.


Oliseh and Tijani Babangida

Sunday Oliseh was in a class of his own as a defensive midfield player. It took the calibre of a world class player like Mikel Obi, 4 years later, to fully wear Oliseh’s shoes.

Mutiu Adepoju, a fantastic player of the same era, a very solid defensive midfield player as well, who could actually do more damage going forward with his shots or head than Oliseh, had to be given an alternative position for him to find a place in the Eagles.

Sunday Oliseh did not have the quantum of Muda Lawal’s or Sani Mohammed’s tireless running, or Paul Okoku’s deft and exquisite touches on the ball, or Demola Adesina’s drive from defense to attack, or even Mutiu Adepoju’s goal scoring instincts, but he had a combination of a little of all of these qualities plus an abundance of his own – tackling skills, defense-splitting passes with both feet across any distances, a superb organizational ability, a vision of where every team mate was, and the most accurate of short and long passes delivered with deadly timing and precision.

At the end of that match in 1993, my conclusion was that a tape of Sunday Oliseh’s performance on that day needed to be produced and distributed to all football schools and academies worldwide, for a perfect demonstration of the art of defensive midfield play.
It was indeed a masterclass.

Sunday Oliseh went on to hold on to that position for 9 years, through all of his career during the most glorious years of the Green Eagles, and, later, the Super Eagles.

Segun Odegbami

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  • Kunle 4 years ago

    Uncle Sege, thanks for taken us down the memory lane. I  remembered that match vividly, he was a joy to watch.

  • Birds of Same feeders enemies of progress Mr odegbami how can you can someone who has denied being an Igbo man ogechukwu,oliseh said that he can’t work for Naija again for as of yesterday he said that he can’t dump his father land,mr bribe oliseh we don’t want you anywhere near our super eagles again,u turned our dear super eagles to okuko but I thank God for coach Rorh who made us to rediscover our identity,

  • Jimoh 4 years ago


  • Chidi 4 years ago

    Oliseh a legend,ndidi all he needs to do is to improve on his passing ability,a pinpoint precision passing skills

  • Aleks 4 years ago

    Yes, I remember that Oliseh’s debut game against Ethiopia with nostalgia. It’s almost like Segun Odegbami has written exactly what I felt that day. It was a masterclass performance from Sunday Oliseh. Indeed if there was ever a perfect performance in a football game, that was it. Before this time, the defensive midfield position had been a problematic position for Westerhof who had tried many different players including Austin Equaveon, Emeka Ezeugwu, Mutiu Adepoju, Moses Kpakor, Friday Ekpo, Okon Ene Effa, Thompson Oliha etc, but couldn’t quite get his ‘destroyer’ as he preferred to call the position. It was the last missing piece in that great team, and I remember saying to myself that our team was now complete after that game against Ethiopia. And  by the way, the Ethiopian team that lost 6-0 that day was not a bad team by any standard. In a group comprising Nigeria, Sudan and Uganda, the Ethiopians were the only team that defeated Nigeria, – a 1 – 0 victory in the first leg. And Nigeria actually needed a victory from that last March to qualify for the ‘94 Nations cup. The 6-0 result was totally unexpected. Everywhere was tense before the game, but few minutes into the game, the Ethiopian team became quite ordinary as the entire stadium watch in awe as Sunday Oliseh took control of the entire pitch. And he never looked back. I can’t remember Oliseh having an off day in Super Eagles shirt. Even with his later poor disciplinary disposition and avoidable clashes with authorities, he always managed to put up outstanding performances in every Super Eagles game he featured in. I also remember one ‘out of this world’ performance in the African-11 Vs European-11 game  as part of the UEFA initiative against racism in 1997 – a math that the African 11 won by 2 goals to one.
    How I wish Oliseh had managed to keep his head! He was a sure bet for 2002 World Cup. And maybe, just maybe, Nigeria would have qualified for 2006 World Cup if Oliseh was still in the team.
    Even as a player, it was obvious that he’ll make a good coach. Yet indiscipline continues to dim this young mans God given talents. It robbed him of a good portion of his international playing career, now it’s threatening his coaching career too. I really wish he can learn some lessons and set on a new path to achieve his God given potentials.

  • Tunde Adeyemo 4 years ago

    I will like to thank chief Segun Odegbami for going to the archive and reminding us of one of the best defensive midfielders Nigeria has ever produced. I really enjoyed the wright-up with precise description of how it happened on that day against Ethiopia. I was visualizing the game just as i was reading the wright-up. Both Chief and Aleks have said so many things about Olishe. I will just like to talk about patriotic nature of this man to our dear country especially to the younger generation. I could remember very well in African nation’s cup semi final in the year 2000. It was Nigeria vs Senagal. Sunday couldn’t start the match because he was just recovering from malaria. Senagal was leading Nigeria till around 75th minutes. Nigerian were beginning to lose hope. Some spectators at the the stadium were already going home. Olishe expression could be read right on the bench that ” i can make the difference in this game”. He told the coach that he should be allowed to play. The coach, Joe Bonfere i think took a great risk by agreeing to introduce him. This great risk eventually paid off.It was Olishe two outstanding contributions that helped Nigeria to win that game.
    I also remembered that his wonderful goal against Spain in world cup in France in 1998. This was another masterpiece.
    Sir, Thanks for reminding us of great contributions of this man to our football.

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