Former Super Eagles captain and coach, Sunday Oliseh, in this interview with JOHNNY EDWARD talks about his experience as a member of the FIFA Technical Study Group at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, his encounter with Pele, how missing the Mundial will affect the Super Eagles and more
The football world lost a great icon Pele two weeks ago. You met him a few times, as a player and as a coach. How did he inspire you?
He was already a legend for us all while we were playing and he was someone we held in high esteem from afar. We idolised him during his playing days as the best ever footballer. So, stepping onto the pitch to play for the biggest title in my lifetime then in 1994, which was the African Cup of Nations at that time, Pele gave me some soothing and encouraging words before the final against Zambia and that feeling was too good that it inspired me as a young player at that time.
After the game what did he say to you?
He congratulated us with a hug, Pele doesn’t shake you like a businessman, he gives you the big shake. I met him again in Paris in 1998 and the few minutes we spent together were out of this world. The reality is that no player ever attained his height. I know people have their favourite players. Some like Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, but if we won’t deceive ourselves, no player past or present was at his level, even half. The unfortunate thing to have happened to him was that he came to this world as a Brazilian. If he were to be British, they would have renamed football ‘Pele ball’ because he was too good. He is the greatest player of all time, the G.O.A.T. You cannot win three World Cups, and anybody will want to compete with you. This means he dominated world football at that time. I know people, especially the young ones, will not be happy with my choice, but those of us who are elderly can identify with him.
Can you share your experience as a member of the FIFA Technical Study Group at the Qatar 2022 World Cup?
It is probably the best sporting experience of my life outside of being a player. I had to tactically analyse 32 games in five weeks and I had to watch two games every day. It’s organisation was perfect and unbelievably a huge success. Qatar 2022 was an amazing experience for players, team officials, journalists and fans. It’s the best tournament ever. They (Qataris) were very nice to their guests. I had never seen where such is done in all my years in football. The facilities are amongst the very best anywhere in the world. Qatar surpassed all known yardsticks in measuring the successful hosting of the World Cup.
No doubt there were times the FIFA Technical Study Group disagreed during the tournament. How did the group decide on the Golden Glove winner Emiliano Martinez, following outstanding performances by keepers at the tournament?
Let me give some technical details. We were six in the group and the tiebreaker was our leader Arsene Wenger. Jordan Pickford left the tournament in the quarter-finals, (Emiliano) Martinez was crucial to his team’s success in Qatar. His penalty saves eliminated Holland and France. (Yassine) Buono got to the semi-finals with Morocco and conceded just two goals.
As a player who played at two FIFA World Cups, scored one of the best goals in the history of the competition, what lessons are there to be learnt for Nigeria?
One basic fact is that we didn’t qualify for the World Cup in Qatar and that has put us one step behind those teams that qualified. Some major trends came up during the World Cup based on the quality of football and the way it was played in Qatar, which made some of these countries adapt to these trends. One of those trends is that teams now try to avoid high pressure and they now take steps to beat the high-pressing game. The countries who took part in the World Cup experienced it and have added it to their play. Now when they get to play teams that did not participate, they will definitely use it. So, Nigeria is way behind the five teams from Africa who qualified. We have work to do and we also noticed the importance of the No.9 role, the urgency in bringing them to play. It has all been documented and it is enriching for teams to view. There were a number of teams who fielded five defenders and played very tight and compact. They wanted to assure a minimum of a point from their games and if a chance came along, try and grab it to win the game.
How impressed were you with the African teams at the World Cup?
I was very impressed. It was the first that all teams from the continent won a game. Their play was impressive as well. Morocco’s success didn’t come through prayers. They worked hard to reach the semi-finals at the World Cup. With the talents in Africa, it shows that with better management, Africa can win the World Cup. Getting to the semi-finals, for me was a big deal for Morocco. It’s sad that Nigeria failed to make the cut last time out, but if we do the right things for football development in the country, we will rise again better than we were.
How soon do you hope to return to coaching?
There are offers from teams but I will rather take my time after the previous experience I had in Germany. What I have in mind is that I would like to be back soon, say in June, with a new club and for the pre-season. I know what I want and what I don’t want and that is the reason why I have had to say no to some offers I have received, but I’m preparing for the next one.
Would you want to coach Nigeria again if offered the Super Eagles job?
I will handle the Super Eagles again if the person employing me has the interest of Nigeria at heart. My priority is to get Nigeria back to the top, but things must be done the right way.
Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo joined Saudi Arabia side Al Nassr after the 2022 World Cup. What do you think about the move?
If Ronaldo is happy, I am happy for him. The man is plowing his roots in life. He took a decision that was best for him. He never stole a Euro. If you have a problem with him moving on with his life then you need to be examined.