Oliseh: Our gold medal has a special worth

3 Aug 2021
  • This is the 25th anniversary of Nigeria's Olympic gold

  • The Super Eagles achieved a historic first for Africa

  • Sunday Oliseh looks back at their Atlanta 1996 triumph

It is 25 years to the day since Nigeria celebrated victory at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament in Atlanta on 3 August 1996. A historic first for the African game, that proved to be the crowning achievement of the Super Eagles' golden generation, a side capable of rivalling the world's best with their inspired and athletic playing style, which proved too much for both Brazil and Argentina en route to gold.

Sunday Oliseh was just 22 at the time and one of Nigeria's key performers during their triumphant run. The former Ajax and Juventus midfielder spoke to FIFA.com about their remarkable adventure.

FIFA.com: You released a book earlier this year on the golden age of Nigerian football. What pushed you to write this book?

Sunday Oliseh: There's a total lack of documentation about that period. The images and witness accounts we have are very limited. My motivation was to help my compatriots and also Africans in general. Most people don't know what we did to reach so high. By sharing that, we can shine a light on the obstacles we had to overcome and how we went about rising to challenges. I also look back at our failures because we had those too.

What made you choose the title Audacity to Refuse?

My profound conviction is that if you want to succeed in life, especially given the realities of the modern world, you need audacity to refuse the limits imposed on you by others. People will always place a barrier in front of you, and your success depends on how you deal with that. In my case, I always refused when people told me I couldn't have 100 per cent and that I'd have to content myself with 20 per cent. I worked hard because I believed in myself – and that's what's always guided me.

What are people most curious about from that period?

What interests people the most are the difficulties we had to overcome to win the Olympic Games, and also the failure at the 2002 World Cup which broke that team and brought an end to the era of the Super Eagles. It's a book that responds to people's curiosity about that period by highlighting all the positive aspects from that time and all the sacrifices which that generation had to make.

Jay-Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, Taribo West, Daniel Amokachi, Victor Ikpeba, yourself… How do you explain all that talent in a single generation?

Determination and dedication, and also our good fortune to all come together at our peak, at the same time, to create an extraordinary team. Each of those players had a hunger to succeed and wanted to make a name for themselves.

What was your mindset when you arrived at the Olympic Games in 1996?

I explain in detail in my book why every player went to the Olympics with so much determination. I spoke to them while I was writing it and they confirmed to me that we all had that hunger to succeed, while each player also had his own personal ambitions. We discovered that we shared the same motivation as the tournament went on.

You have said that Nigeria could have won the FIFA World Cup™ in 1994, when you were eliminated by Italy in the Round of 16…

I still think we had the potential to win that year. All the ingredients were there, but the overall circumstances weren't in our favour. At any rate, it had nothing to do with our squad, which had the talent to go all the way.

You kicked off at Atlanta 1996 with a 1-0 defeat of Hungary and a 2-0 win against Japan. Were you surprised by that excellent start?

No, because we were very motivated. I remember how much we wanted to get the three points. Against Brazil in our third game, we made just one mistake and got punished. Our coach was furious about that defeat.

Ronaldo scored the winning goal in that game, when still just 20 years old. What impression did he make on you?

I didn't know he would go on to be the best player in the world, but it was obvious he had something that others players didn't. Ronaldo was exceptional. He caused us all sorts of problems.

You were sent off against Mexico in the quarter-finals, so you missed out on the revenge game against Brazil in the semis, which Nigeria won 4-3 with a golden goal. What do you remember about that match?

We had mixed feelings going into it, but we showed what we could do as the game went on. They had two players who could have been named player of the year: Ronaldo and Rivaldo. They had an exceptional team, but we felt strong and weren't afraid of anyone. We felt we were as good as them, if not better. That confidence meant that our players were able to join top clubs after the Olympics.

IMAGO / AFLOSPORT
Ariel Ortega (Argentinien, Mitte) gegen Sunday Oliseh (Nigeria, li.) - PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxHUNxONLY (aflo008)

The Argentina side you then defeated in the final was also fairly frightening…

Yes, they had Hernan Crespo, Ariel Ortega, Claudio Lopez, Diego Simeone, Roberto Ayala… As against Brazil, we conceded an early goal due to a lapse in concentration. We left ourselves too open. We didn't always start very well, but we finished our games well. We were superior to our opponents physically. That was thanks to our early arrival in Atlanta and our long preparation. We'd already been training for two weeks over there when all the other teams arrived, and we'd had time to get used to the Atlanta climate.

What did you make of Argentina?

We found them to be very strong. They respected us more in the second half, and we felt we could hurt them. We were determined to go home with the gold medal. Losing was never an option for that squad.

What were you feeling at the final whistle, knowing you had just won gold?

Wow… (laughs). It's not something you can foresee. Given the way we'd won, we weren't surprised, but we felt an ecstatic joy that we'd never experienced before. It's good to win the Africa Cup of Nations, for example, but when you win the Olympics, you're considered as world champions. On top of that, we'd beaten teams like Brazil and Argentina to do it, and the quality of those teams means that our gold medal has a special worth. I still get goosebumps today when I think about it. It's not something you can predict when you start your career as a footballer. You tell yourself that gold medals are for other people. So, when you win one, it's just an indescribable joy.