Sunday Oliseh was a ferocious force for Nigeria’s Super Eagles during the best moments in their history. Now retired and living in Belgium, the former holding midfielder spoke to FIFA.com about the highs and lows of USA 1994 and France 1998, the Olympic title that “no one can take away.” Also on the table in this frank discussion is the Nigerian football philosophy, terrace culture in the west African nation, former clubs like Ajax and Juventus and, of course, that goal from 1998 against Spain that will live on forever.
FIFA.com: Firstly, let’s just get it out of the way, and talk about that goal. Do you still get reminded of the long-range stunner you scored in the win over Spain at the 1998 World Cup?
Sunday Oliseh [Laughs] People don’t just ask me about the goal, or remind me about the goal, they show me the goal all the time. Just two days ago someone took me aside in Abu Dhabi (UAE) and played me the video on the internet. He asked me: ‘do you know the fellow who scored this goal?’ I just laughed.
You only scored four goals for the national team, so it must be a personal highlight to get such a cracker on such a big stage.
I think it was God’s way of arranging things so that people wouldn’t forget me. Every time I see it I think to myself ‘wow, I never knew I was that good’ [laughs].
Can you talk a little bit about the power of football in your native Nigeria?
Nigeria has a philosophy of football. It’s a philosophy you can’t credit to anybody; it’s not down to an individual or a group. If anyone tries to take credit for it, he’s just telling lies. The philosophy is attacking football. Going forward, we’ve always been good. We’ve always played it this way.
Nigerian fans seem happiest when the ball is pinging around – quick, one-touch passes.
It gets to the point when you hear the fans say ey, ey, ey with each pass of the ball and ooh when the team loses it. That ey is like when it starts to touch, when it starts to happen with the ball. It’s always been there, from long before my generation and when we were playing. That ey means, ‘yeah, go ahead, play.’ We touch it around and around and then when it gets taken away, the fans ooh as if to say: ‘give it back, give it back – it’s ours.’
As one of your country’s best-ever players, and a member of its so-called golden generation, how do you view the current state of football in Nigeria?
The moment my generation retired it was like somebody just shut the doors. Nigeria didn’t prepare for our departure. The golden generation just left and that was it. No one thought to bring some of the young ones into the team while we were still there, so they could learn from us. They should have been sitting on the bench to learn from me, and to learn from Jay-Jay Okocha and all the others. They could have asked us questions and we could have told them answers. We didn’t do that, and it was a real problem for the country’s football. Things fell off after us. We went onto a wilderness of trial and error for some years.
But the Super Eagles are reigning African champions now for the first time since 1994 and they’ve qualified for next year’s FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil.
The current national team coach Stephen Keshi, who was my captain at the World Cup in 1994, is a good one. Love him or loathe him, he brought back the African Cup of Nations title to the country, and the last time Nigeria did that was when we were playing.
Speaking of those great Super Eagle teams of old, can you talk about why, when everything looked to be falling into place, your teams from ’94 and ’98 stumbled at the first knockout round?
In the group stages we didn’t have to travel. We stayed still and so there were no logistical issues. We just played. But once we reached the next stage, we had to start moving around and there needed to be a plan. Our knowledge of preparations at the time were not good enough to help us through. We won our groups in both tournaments, but we had problems to solve after that, and it cost us.
Do you feel a sense of having missed out on something great?
With the quality we had in 1994 and 1998 we should have at least gone to the quarter-finals, or maybe the semi-finals. But it’s a learning process.
On a brighter note, people still talk about the Nigerian Olympic-winning side from Atlanta 1996. You were barely 22 years old, but you played a crucial part alongside the likes of Okocha, Emmanuel Amunike and Taribo West. What did it meant to win Gold?
It was a world title and it’s something no one can take away. You are Olympic champion for all of your life. It was the first tournament ever where we played on a different continent, and we were there in America before everyone. We were there a month before the competition. We worked our behinds off and the team was young. Most of the players had a point to make. We had so much talent and it all came together. We covered for each other and we had the kind of luck you need to go all the way.
Do you often run into your old team-mates, guys like Taribo or Nwankwo Kanu?
At the holiday times, when I go home to Nigeria, I always run into these guys. And when we see each other, that’s it – I drop what I’m doing, all appointments are cancelled and I go talk about the old days with Taribo [West] or whoever else. We walk around Lagos and chat for hours and hours. The family complains, but who cares? [laughs] It’s never planned, it just happens.
It sounds like there’s a special bond with your team-mates.
We suffered a lot and we won things a lot, so there’s a bond. It’s there forever. My parents, they understand it when I disappear for these little meetings with my mates, but my brothers and sisters, they give me a hard time about it.
You’ve played for some top clubs, like Ajax, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund. Do you still follow their fortunes?
Absolutely. I live and breathe football. My wife always says ‘If I don’t have football I get sick.’ I follow all of my former clubs, with a passion. I hope every year to have at least one finish as a champion.
And how are you finding their progress?
For the past three years Ajax have been winning titles, so at least one of my ex clubs is winning. And Juventus is always Juventus, so that’s good. Dortmund is back at the top in Germany, so it’s fun for me. I’ll follow them all my life.
Dortmund, where you played for four years, seem to be going through an historic moment. Can you talk about it?
They are trying to revolutionise German football with the way they play. In the seven years I played in the country, and long before that, the German game was based on physical dominance. I love watching this current Dortmund team play because they’re going in a different direction.
But I’m not ashamed to say it: I love the way [Pep] Guardiola works with Bayern Munich. It’s a joy to watch the way Bayern is changing into a next-level team. The Germans call it Teamgeist, it’s like a team spirit, and they have so much of it. Everybody knows what to do and they know when to do it.