Interview with Sunday Oliseh: “BVB Can Win The Meisterschaft”

An interview with Sunday Oliseh by Ben McFadyean

Sunday Ogochukwu Oliseh, born 14 September 1974, is a Nigerian football manager and former player.

In his active playing career, he played as a midfielder. He is widely regarded as one of the best African midfielders of all time. A physical, yet technically gifted, defensive midfielder, Oliseh played for world-famous clubs such as AFC Ajax, Borussia Dortmund, and Juventus. Oliseh also played 63 international matches and scored three goals for Nigeria and played at the FIFA Football World Cups of 1994 and 1998. Oliseh was a member of the Nigeria team that won the Olympic gold medal at the Atlanta Olympic games in 1996.

Sunday Oliseh was voted Africa’s third-best footballer in 1998 by CAF. He is mostly remembered for scoring the winning goal in the group stage match against Spain in the 1998 World Cup, as Nigeria prevailed 3–2. A throw-in deep in the Spanish half was headed clear by Fernando Hierro; Oliseh ran and fired an explosive shot from 25 yards and took Spanish goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta completely by surprise.

Despite captaining Nigeria during the 2002 African Cup of Nations, Oliseh was omitted from his country’s World Cup squad later that year. After missing out on World Cup selection, Oliseh retired from international football in June 2002.

In January 2006, at the age of 31, Oliseh retired from professional football after playing a season for Belgian top club KRC Genk. Oliseh then started his coaching career in Belgium with youth teams in the Belgian third division. 

In 2015–16, Oliseh was appointed by the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) as the National Team Chief Coach of Nigeria (Super Eagles of Nigeria) where he achieved an impressive statistic of 14 Games, 19 goals scored, six conceded, and just two losses. Under Oliseh, Nigeria qualified to the group phase of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. In his first game as Chief Coach in an AFCON qualifier, he managed a draw in Tanzania.

He resigned as Nigeria’s national coach on 26 February 2016. On 27 December 2016, Oliseh was appointed as the new manager of Fortuna Sittard and departed the club in February 2018 after leading the Eredivisie side to the Dutch second tier title and promotion, the club’s first silverware in 23 years.

In 2020, Oliseh published his biography entitled ‘The Audacity to Refuse’.  In 2021, Oliseh was appointed by the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) to a special executive committee to create a 10-year developmental road map for the national team.

Key: BM Ben McFadyean SO: Sunday Oliseh

BM: 25 years since the Atlanta 1996 Olympic gold medal, 321 professional matches with 18 goals in Belgium, Italy, and Germany, 63 caps for Nigeria, winning the Dutch Eredivisie title with Ajax in 1998, the KNVB Cup in 98 and 99, and the Bundesliga title with Borussia Dortmund in 2002. You certainly had an impressive career?

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SO: Thank you. Winning the gold medal at the Atlanta games was a special highlight for me, as it was for the Nigerian fans. I am grateful every day for my football career and the incredible clubs I had the chance to play for, but also being a coach is a unique challenge which I am blessed to have the chance to be part of.

BM: Winding back the clock to your origins, you grew up in Nigeria, Did you always know you were going to be a footballer?

SO: At a very young age, around six, I started playing football. I was also a good student, and my parents wanted me to focus on my studies. Football could never be my priority; my parents wouldn’t accept that. I did have talent, however, and agents from Belgium came to my town and set up some football trials. Ironically, due to a school exam, I was unable to take part in the trials. My reputation was such, however, that the agents insisted on seeing me play, and after completing my exam, I met with them and was offered a place. Going to Belgium to play football was, despite my parent’s opposition, the greatest decision I ever made. In spite of the opposition, I just wanted to play football.

‘Nigerian fans are incredible they have a great mentality, winning the Atlanta 1996 Olympic gold medal was a first for an African team. I was very proud, before anything else, I am a Nigerian’

BM: So you came to Belgium in 1990 as a 16-year-old and made your first steps first with five-time Belgian Champions RFC Liege, now a third-tier club. You stayed with the club for four years and played 75 games for the first time, scoring three goals. In 1994, you transferred to Italy, joining Serie A club AC Reggiana. What were your first impressions of playing in Europe? Was it very different to playing in Africa? The transition is known to be difficult from one system to another. How did you go about adjusting to life in Europe?

SO: It was difficult. I think the fact that I was brought up in a Christian home got me through those hard times because I felt there was nowhere else I was supposed to be. My faith made me feel a bit invincible on the pitch and helped me get through the hardest times when the pressure was greatest. I was also blessed to have met some remarkable people along the way, some that are still friends today. Many people helped me, and I am grateful for their support. I also knew what I wanted, and that focus keeps you going.

BM: What made Italy special for you? It’s a warmer climate than playing in Belgium. Did the climate and the more-open mentality of the people help you to find your way?

SO: Well, that’s true in Italy; the culture is more open, and the weather is better.  What made a difference, however, is just how competitive a league the Serie A was then, perhaps at the time, the most competitive in the world. In the 1990s, some of the best players like Zidane, Baggio, Batistuta, Baresi, Totti, Ronaldo, Veron, Gullit, Van Basten, and Maldini played in Italy. Week for week, I competed against these players. It was football at the highest level, a great start to my career, and it goes without saying that I enjoyed the weather and also the food in Italy.

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BM: In 1995, you moved to Germany, joining 1. FC Köln, another big change. There you were following in the footsteps of another African player; Anthony Baffoe, the Ghanaian who played five years with Köln in the mid-80s, was one of the first black players to play in Germany. Did Baffoe preceding you make it easier for you do you think?

SO: Baffoe’s experience may have helped many African players in Germany. They treated me like one of their own in Cologne. There were not a lot of players of colour in the Bundesliga, but the way I was treated you would not have known I was African. My nickname was ‘the German Nigerian’. The Cologne experience was very special, but on a sporting side in the first year, we struggled. We went through three coaches in 10 months. But the second year was exceptional. I had just come back from winning the gold medal with Nigeria at the Olympic games in the USA, and I was filled with confidence and self-belief and (belief) in the team. Everything felt right, we were in the flow, and were in the top five most of the season, huge for the club at that time.

‘You had to wake up if you were playing in the Bundesliga or you would get kicked out – simple’

BM: You were with Cologne from 1995 to 1997, a sensational age for another club which was soon to become a new ‘home’ for you: Borussia Dortmund. ‘Die Schwarz-Gelben’ had just won two championships back-to-back. And then in 1997, they won the Champions League, beating a club you would soon join in Juventus. You played BVB in the league several times with 1. FC Köln. Were you impressed by what you saw in Dortmund?

SO: Well, BVB at the time had a special team. They had world champions like Stefan Reuter or Karl-Heinz Riedle. It was a very solid team, and they had the Brazilian Julio Cesar, so they were the superstars of the German league and played a fast-paced, aggressive football; they were hard to break down. But the Bundesliga was exceptional. It was very physical, fast, and aggressive. You had to wake up if you were playing in Germany or you would get kicked out – simple as that.

BM: You played with 1. FC Köln and BVB, two top teams in Germany, but let me ask you about English football. I know from working in Ethiopia that a lot of Africans follow English football. Is it a regret of yours that you never played in the Premier League? Also, do you think that the Premier League is tougher and a greater challenge?

SO: Well, to start with, I think the German league is outstanding. The Premier League just gets more media attention on it. The German league is complete. The German league is highly competitive. From first place to the bottom club, there are no easy matches. Those who say the Premier League is tougher have never played in Germany. I refused offers several times to go to the English Premier League, including from Manchester United, Everton, and Newcastle United. I am happy with the decisions I made. You know one thing (in) the German league (is that) you don’t win it by mistake.

BM: What about during your time with 1. FC Köln? Which players do you especially remember? What anecdotes or stories can you share from your time with the club?

SO: Well, I have many good memories of former Cologne colleagues, but few better than Pablo Thiam. Pablo is, to this day one of my best friends. We were roommates. He was practically like a brother to me. We were always inseparable. But there were many good players at 1. FC Köln at the time. Some also became friends, like Tony Polster or Dorinel Munteanu. I like FC Cologne. You’re treated like a member of the family at the club. To this day, when it’s my birthday, I get messages from them. When my biography, ‘The Audacity to Refuse’, came out last year, the club ordered multiple copies and helped me to promote the book by widely sharing the news with their fans. Cologne has treated me well.

‘The two seasons with Ajax went by really fast, always a good sign, they will always be a special club for me’

BM: Your next move was to Amsterdam to AFC Ajax there you also played with players like Frank De Boer, Winston Bogart, and Patrick Kluivert. What difference did playing at the Johan Cruyff Arena make to your career?

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SO: I played alongside some greats at Ajax, and it was an important time in my career, but few were greater than Michael Laudrup. Michael is not just an incredible player he is also an exceptional human being, totally down to earth, even with all the success he has had. Also Benny McCarthy, ‘The Kid’ as he was nicknamed, remains a lifelong friend. Benny was my ‘partner in crime’. I would always stand up for him and vice-versa. I like to see the positives in everything, but I can say that at Ajax we had some great players, and it was also fun in the locker room. On the field, the results were also there. We won the title in 1997 and the KNVB Cup twice. Those two years in Amsterdam just went really fast which is always a good sign.

BM: You played 54 games and scored nine goals as well. What was your favourite goal for Ajax?

SO: That was my first goal for Ajax, which was in 1997 and against Vitesse Arnhem. It was very special because my son was in the stadium. My wife had brought him to the stadium to watch the game. He was eight months old at the time. It was a special goal, too, a long-range shot from well outside the box, a huge breakthrough for me at the time.

BM: You certainly made an impression in the Eredivisie because only a few months later, in 1999, the great Juventus came knocking for you. What was the ‘Juve’ experience like for you?

SO: So of course, playing for Juventus was very special but for me, but it was a challenging time. I played only eight games in total. Turin was a great learning process for me. Working alongside players like Zidane, I learnt how to handle relationships with them. I played in eight clubs in my career; you cannot expect to be at home in every one of them, but I learnt a lot from Carlo Ancelotti, especially the emphasis on the defence. I have adapted my own defensive tactics as a coach based on what I learned with Juventus.  That was one of the club’s strengths at the time. You know when ‘Juve’ scored, they would ‘slam the barn door closed’. It’s the Italian way and it’s effective.  I borrowed many of those tactics when I was coaching in Holland with Fortuna Sittard, and the strong defence is what gave us so much success going from second division to the first division. I would be a far less effective coach if I hadn’t had that spell in Turin. Let’s face it, most players would give anything for the chance to play for such a club.

’Most players would give just about anything to have the chance to play for Juve’

BM: Your next stop was BVB in 2000. How did it feel to be joining ‘Die Schwarz-Gelben’ at that particular time?

SO: As far as I’m concerned, the Dortmund fans are phenomenal. I love playing at the Westfalenstadion. You would come out of the dugout, and the energy would bounce off from all the stands, the same amazing energy as playing for the Nigerian national team. The Dortmund fans are incredible, but 2000 was a challenging time in Dortmund. My coach was Matthias Sammer, who was just getting started. The club was in a strained financial situation. BVB were just rebuilding financially.  Matthias Sammer felt the pressure, and the strain could be felt in the dressing room, but the camaraderie amongst the players was memorable. We had a good team spirit, even in that challenging time.

BM: Delron Buckley, who you played alongside while at BVB, spoke very highly of you he specifically praised you for being one of the most professional guys he has ever played with. What makes you such a serious competitor?

SO: Well primarily, I hate losing. I saw hardship as a kid. I know what it is like to be hungry. So for that reason, when I got the chance to be able to do something about it, I did so in my football career. I was born with a talent to play the game I love and I am grateful to for that. But the work, I had to do it myself. And it’s because of the career that I had that I have food on the table now. It’s thanks to the way I handled my footballing life.

BM: Let’s talk about your second season 01-02, the title-winning season. With Borussia, you were playing alongside players like Tomas Rosicky, Jens Lehmann and Marcio Amoroso who scored a stunning 18 goals that season. What was the special BVB magic at the time?

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SO: It was an incredible Dortmund side. Sometimes we played with eleven internationals on the field; that says it all. Tommy, yes he was very good. Jan Koller was also an incredible striker. Also a player whose contribution is underestimated, however, is Ibrahim Tanko. Ibrahim is one player I would highlight from the time for his contribution to the BVB title-winning side, and he was and remains also a great friend. What made that BVB side so special was also the right balance of people in the side/ We did a lot together also outside of the field of play. We would go to eat at restaurants or meet-up after games. The combination of players at the time was right that’s what made the difference. When things were going bad, everybody had the other ones back because we got on well in person. Attack and defence were in harmony, which helped us a lot, and the BVB fans were always behind us.

‘The balance of the BVB team in 2001-2 was right, when things got tough, we looked out for each other, there was a great team spirit in the side’

BM: You won several titles, especially in Holland as a player at Ajax, but also as a coach with Fortuna Sittard. What is so unique about winning the German ‘Meisterschaft’? What is it like to be Bundesliga champions with BVB?

SO: Winning the Bundesliga title is something I dreamt of both with Cologne and Borussia Dortmund, and I got to realize my dream in 2002 with BVB, unforgettable. Holding up the trophy on the pitch, the pitch invasion, the party with the fans, and the parade in the city winning in Dortmund is phenomenal. Everywhere you looked, you could see people as if you had cut open a bag of black and yellow rice and it all poured out all over Dortmund. BVB has some of the greatest fans in the Bundesliga.

BM: Let’s speak for a moment about your national team experience. You were a coach and a player with the ‘Super Eagles’, the Nigeria national team. What were the highlights for you with the national team?

SO: Well, my first match was against Ethiopia, and we won it 6:0. That was special. Playing for Nigeria was always special. It’s the highlight of any career, playing for the national side. You are not established as a player until you have been called up for your country; especially in Nigeria you are not seen as a star. Our fans are crazy. They have a great mentality, especially winning the Atlanta 1996 gold medal, a first for an African team. I am Nigerian first before anything else.

BM: You also played against one Diego Armando Maradona at the FIFA World Cup in the USA in 1994. Do you have special memories of him? Were you very much affected by Maradona’s death last year?

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SO: It was strange when he died. I felt strange the whole day, Diego gave so much joy to people in his life, especially to his countrymen. He took football to another level. Playing him was sublime, and it hurts somehow still when you see images of him to think he is gone and at such a young age, just 60.

BM: What about Maradona as a player? What was he like on the pitch? Could Maradona be stopped when you were playing against him? Did you manage to tackle him?

SO: If you decided to play clean, you had no chance. He seemed to have eyes in the back of his head. The only way to stop the man was to play aggressive. Despite his stature, he had an incredible ability; one slight movement and he was gone. Maradona was special like few other players.

‘BVB need to find the right balance in the team but Rose is a good motivator and Dortmund could go on to win the title’

BM: Let me lastly ask you about the talents in the current BVB team. What is your view of the current BVB team? Players like Giovanni Reyna and Jude Bellingham? Or Erling Haaland? How far can this BVB team under Marco Rose go?

SO: All of the players you mention are extremely talented, but that’s no secret. But at the moment, I think there is still something missing for BVB to go all the way to the title. It’s something to do with the mentality, which has been missing in recent years, and that is why they have not won the Bundesliga since 2012. In 2018 under Favre, BVB were very far ahead of Bayern. They had a nine point lead at Christmas, but they failed to close the deal and win the title. Instead, Bayern won in 2019 and again last season they won their ninth Meisterschaft in a row. But you cannot blame it all on the coach. As a player, you have to want to leave your mark wherever you play, and your motivation has to come from inside you, not from the coach. I am not sure that BVB have the right balance yet in the squad. In particular, in defence there is still not enough experienced talent apart from Akanji and Hummels. But Rose is a good motivator and I believe that Dortmund can get their act together and win the title. A key difference which is often underestimated between Bayern and Dortmund is in the mentality; the winning mentality may still be lacking in Dortmund. Bayern want to win everything all the time, and it’s been very difficult beating them in recent years. But it’s very difficult playing in a league with Bayern Munich. Bayern are one of the best-financed clubs in world football, and that puts them in a position to pretty much win titles most of the time.

At the end of the day, if you want to be German champions, one thing is certain you will definitely have to earn it.

About Benjamin McFadyean 10 Articles
For the last 7 years, I have been writing about this unique football league I have followed since I moved to Germany as an 11 year-old in the 1990s. The club I follow is the eight-time champion Borussia Dortmund. As a teenager, I had a season ticket on the Dortmund's 'Yellow Wall' the Südtribüne until I returned to live in the UK in my 20s. The Bundesliga for me has the balance right and is an example of what football can be, great passionate crowds, member-owned football clubs and fair prices, not to mention outstanding football in the land of the four-time FIFA World Champions. In addition to my writing, I am a qualified German-English translator specialised in the football industry and am currently translating a biography by one of the leading figures in German football. For the last 7 years I have been president of the official BVB fan club in London,  when I am not in Dortmund, I regularly attend games of Portsmouth FC at the legendary Fratton Park stadium.