There is no turning back now.
Sunday Oliseh has (knowingly or unknowingly) drawn a line in the sand, he has made his intentions clear as far as his plans for the Super Eagles are concerned: this Sheriff is not here to joke, it’s all business.
The Delta born Belgian keeps making dramatic entrances, even though not all the drama emanate from him:
When he was appointed, the President of the Nigeria Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick, raised dust the size of a Sahara sand storm by declaring him, ‘The African Guardiola’.
That introduction is enough to take the wind out of the sails of most men; Pep Guardiola, the man whose name was dropped in the same breath as Oliseh’s, is one of the best managers in world football. But Nigeria’s rookie coach didn’t bat an eyelid at the comparison. In fact, the almost shy smile that he flashed, will seem to say he welcomed it.
The press lapped up the comparison, and went to town, using that phrase as banner headlines the following day. If that pronouncement was a gimmick, cooked up between Pinnick and his new charge, it worked a treat. But since there is no proof that it was a publicity stunt, and since it was the NFF president that created that drama, Oliseh is excused.
The next dramatic entrance, however, was all Sunny: less than 30 minutes into his first game in charge of the Super Eagles, he moved to replace a player he had brought in from international wilderness.
Haruna Lukman was back on the substitutes bench in less time than it took him to check in for the flight to Tanzania from his base in Russia, after appearing for the Super Eagles for the first time in five years.
Most managers would wait till half time to effect the change, Oliseh didn’t. It took guts. It was a bold statement. And since no one has asked Sunny to let us into his mind to share what he saw, and how he viewed his midfielder that day, we cannot say whether Lukman will be back or not.
What we do know is that Lukman has not been seen since.
The biggest drama so far, is arguably the one that validated the thoughts expressed in an earlier article in this column, and what may have finally, fully, defined Oliseh: The face-off between him and Vincent Enyeama, the former Super Eagles Skipper.
This discourse is not about who is right or wrong in that matter. It is about the message that Oliseh sent out. And as loud and clear as the message was, many missed it. And in case you are one of those who did, here it is:
Sunday Oliseh did what all great coaches do: he publicly seized his dressing room from players reputed to hold managers in a strangle hold, which often leads to the down fall of the coaches. Oliseh didn’t target Enyeama, the likeable goal tender was just the man caught in the cross fire of fate.
The show down with Enyeama was a tactical move that could have back fired. The gambit is often played by managers who are confident and who have, added to that confidence, a bit of arrogance. And that is where Sunny gets my attention.
Remember, this is not about who is right or who is wrong in the Oliseh/Enyeama imbroglio that appears to have been solved by the NFF, it is about the gambit and its importance in the history of Nigerian football.
Just think about it: Enyeama at every turn, talks about how cordial the relationship is between him and his new manager; Oliseh insists he has nothing against the Lille goalkeeper. Yet, both of them set off a conflagration that for over 76 hours, caught the attention of the world media and Super Eagles fans everywhere!
It was a move that could have cost Oliseh a dressing room that was chocked full of senior internationals, of whom Enyeama is leader. For make no mistake about it, the Akwa Ibom born goal tender has not lost his influence on the team, and that was why the players rallied to set up a peace committee as soon as he walked out of camp the first time.
What Oliseh did was to get for himself the validation and respect he needs to achieve the success he craves with the team. Just take a look at the coaches that have found success with the senior Super Eagles – Otto Gloria, Clemens Westerhof, Stephen Keshi. They all commanded the respect of their troops.
Otto Gloria came in an era when a foreign coaches were venerated. And while it was Gloria that won the Nations Cup in 1980, it could be argued that the success was built on the foundation laid by another foreign coach, Tihomir Jelisavcic, otherwise known as Father Tiko. The players respected Tiko, and they respected Otto Gloria.
Clemens Westerhof, who ruled his dressing room with an iron fist, thought nothing of leaving JayJay Okocha on the bench. The Dutchman wanted his team to be quick in transition from defence to attack, but Okocha is a showman that loves to hold the ball. As a result, Okocha seldom starts for Westerhof. He comes on only when victory is secured, and the manager wants Eagles to dominate possession.
Above all, the players respected the Dutchman, but by the summer of ’94, the constant government and Federation interference in team affairs had watered down his influence. What followed was the chaos that led to the defeat at the hands of Italy in the Second Round of the World Cup.
That was the end of ‘respect’ as far as foreign coaches in Super Eagles is concerned. Players armed with European professional contracts, and backed by a sometimes snivelling Federation, took control of the team, and simply sabotaged any coach, foreign or local, that tried to enforce any rule.
So, when Stephen Keshi ‘the godfather’ of almost all Nigerian players, as he was the first professional Nigerian on Belgian soil was appointed coach, sanity prevailed. For a season.
He was called upon after player power had blighted the tenures of several coaches before him. One of the first things he did was to create space – lots of space – for hungry home based players.
This enabled him control the camp and the team long enough to win an African title. Then slowly, the tide turned, he lost the dressing room. And Oliseh was appointed.
Cue the attendant drama series. Is there a pattern, a reason? Maybe. Maybe not.
Many will argue that Keshi’s tenure ended because he couldn’t teach the tactics that could give the Eagles the organization and fluency of play that Nigerians wanted. But that is neither here nor there.
Oliseh has, in a way, repeated the same thing Jose Mourinho did when he first arrived at Chelsea. The Portuguese genius (yes, I love Jose!) reportedly summoned the whole team of super stars, and told them that while they’d won nothing, he is European Champion. The Special One. By publicly telling the perceived team leader of the Eagles – Enyeama – to leave the room, Sunny passed the same message. I’m in charge. Heck, he said it!
Brain Clough, the man that won two European Cups for Nottingham Forest was well known for being outspoken and fearless when it’s time to tackle issues. Sir Alex Ferguson always comes out tops in battles against stubborn players, Didier Deschamps dropped Samir Nasir from the French national team, Louis van Gaal sells off rebels, Diego Simeone’s hold on Atletico Madrid players is becoming stuff of legends.
All have one thing in common: they wrest control of their teams from whoever, and they all are proven winners.
It can be argued that Oliseh has not won anything yet. And given the current state of the senior Nigeria national team, it will take more than just discipline to get the team back on winning ways, but if there is something Oliseh has done, he has brought belief, Super Eagles fans can dream again.
Agreed, the time is too short to correctly gauge his impact, if he’s had any. But Oliseh looks organized, going by the way he’s handled the team from the get-go. He’s also deliberately put himself in the firing line, like all confident winners do.
And best of all, the 3-0 defeat he handed to Cameroon is the heaviest defeat ever suffered by the former African Champions against an African side.
The only time they shipped that many goals were: In 2010 when Egypt trounced them 3-1 in Extra Time at the Nations Cup, the 3-2 defeat against South Africa in a November 2008 friendly, a 4-2 defeat against Egypt in another Nations Cup game in 2008, and a 3-2 defeat also against Egypt in a World Cup Qualifying game in September 2004. And in each of those games, the Cameroonians scored at least a goal. Not against Nigeria.
Now, the hard work begins. The coaches and managers that win work hard, really hard to achieve their goals.
But if there is one thing Sunday Oliseh has shown, it is that he is not afraid of hard work either.