There is something to be said about the group of former Nigeria players known loosely as the Class of ’94.
That core group of players re-awakened Nigeria’s football consciousness with swashbuckling, opponent-destroying football, and they also backed it up by qualifying for their first-ever World Cup and winning the African Nations Cup.
When Nigeria won Olympic gold in 1996, the spine of the side came from that same Class of ’94. Nigeria has been blessed with some great internationals since, but no group has quite had the same impact as that iteration.
Members of that squad have carried over their playing successes. The late Stephen Keshi won Nations Cup gold (assisted by Daniel Amokachi and Ike Shorunmu, two other members of that team) and bronze (as assistant to Shuaibu Amodu).
Austin Eguavoen has won Nations Cup bronze. Samson Siasia has enjoyed spells coaching and winning medals with the Under-20s and U23s and guiding the Super Eagles. Emmanuel Amunike has won the U17 World Cup with Nigeria. Michael Emenalo is technical director at Chelsea, and Sunday Oliseh has coached Nigeria — although some might say prematurely.
This group of ex-players have been trailblazing since Keshi opened the floodgates to the European promised land. Once again, two members of this group are now breaking new grounds by being named coaches of European clubs.
Oliseh was first when he coached third-division club Vervetois in Belgium. Daniel Amokachi followed suit, taking over as coach of Finnish club Hercules.
Neither were significant enough moves to merit more than fleeting attention. But the recent appointment of Oliseh by Fortuna Sittard is a big deal. A very big deal.
Sittard may not be Dutch football royalty, but they do have a rich history and were in the Eredivisie until 2002, when they dropped down a division. Among their notable former coaches is Bert van Marwijk, who coached Netherlands, and they have produced players such as Mark van Bommel, Kevin Hofland and Wilfred Bouma.
Oliseh’s task will be returning the club to the Eredivisie — they’ve come close in 2012, 2013 and 2014. But even more, it will be a chance for Oliseh to prove his stint with Nigeria could have been better, but the institutional lapses he cited were the reasons for stepping down from the job.
There are many in Nigeria who still believe Oliseh, like Gary Neville at Valencia in La Liga, failed to walk the walk after talking the talk. In Oliseh fashion, he will go into the job feeling he has nothing to prove to anyone. In reality, this is almost win or bust for him.
As a player, Oliseh was one of the more cerebral types who played more with his head. But his major drawback has always been a very short fuse. And when things did not go as smoothly as he wanted while on the Nigeria job, it didn’t take long for him to let people know.
This move offers a chance to prove he could have done much better with Nigeria, given a better set of circumstances. The hope and expectation is that he would have learned from the Super Eagles’ speed bump and deal better with players, irrespective of who is right or wrong, without compromising his authority.
Having lived in Europe since an early age, “Sunny” has developed that European mentality, and this opportunity should suit him.
He cannot afford to be another Neville, sacked after just three months at Valencia back in March after winning only 10 games from 28. With Oliseh’s country, he got a pass because of the Nigeria federation’s well-documented organisational issues.
He will not have the luxury of any such excuses to fall back on here. This is why he must ensure everything to his satisfaction before he starts work. There are many back home (and Oliseh will know) who will be all too happy to see him struggle, just so they can find vindication.
European clubs are not known to hand over their coaching reins to Africans. Oliseh acknowledged this in a riposte to suggestions that he should have garnered experience by coaching a European club before taking over the Nigeria job.
In a sense, this job is bigger than Oliseh. If he succeeds, thus becoming the first African to coach in the top division of a European league, he could open the gates for other Africans to manage in Europe. Just like Keshi did with the players.
The opposite does not bear thinking about.