The former Nigeria midfielder transformed Fortuna Sittard and was a beacon of hope for African coaches in Europe until things went rapidly downhill
Perhaps Sunday Oliseh knew more than he was letting on when, on the first Monday of February, he imagined a time when Fortuna Sittard would not want him around. “Maybe I’m not here next week,” he said. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll come here and they say: ‘Coach, you’re sacked, we don’t want you here any more.’”
Outwardly Oliseh was reflecting on the transience of life as a manager but, as it happened, he was only eight days off beam. It was Valentine’s Day when the Dutch second-tier club announced he had been put on “non-active duties” – suspended, in effect – for “unacceptable actions [that] have made cooperation between many people within the organisation impossible”; a case is now pending to the Dutch FA’s arbitration committee to determine whether his contract can be terminated.
It completed the rapid change in appearance of a story that, when the Observer first arranged to interview Oliseh, appeared to bring little but good feeling. When Oliseh, the former Ajax, Borussia Dortmund and Cologne midfielder, took charge of Fortuna in December 2016 they were placed 18th in a 20-team division and freefalling to the point of oblivion; at the midway point of this season they were top of the pile and had won the second of the league’s four “period titles”. They won seven league games in a row between November and January, before which they had broken a club record by winning eight consecutive home fixtures. The team was young, the goals raining in, the football free-flowing: at the turn of the year it was, unreservedly, a tale of success.
Yet rumours began to surface of trouble behind the scenes and Oliseh had a practice run for what followed when, a fortnight prior to his suspension, he was greeted by bemused faces upon arriving at work. “I opened the door of the dressing room and my assistant said ‘Have you read the newspaper? You’ve been sacked.’ He showed me on his phone and I thought ‘Oh, that’s nice, a nice way to hear that. Then, 10 minutes later, the club put out a statement saying that they hadn’t sacked me.’”
That is a broadly accurate version of events but the feeling, upon meeting Oliseh in that brief spell between dismissals real and imagined, was that the die had been cast. His team’s form had dipped and they had just lost three consecutive matches. “It’s been a strange week, stressful,” he admitted of the reports. “It’s weighed on the team and how to get it out of them now is something I don’t really know. It’s really sad when you look at the job God has blessed me to. But I really don’t have anything to fault myself on. Everything I’ve done is in the interests of getting the team to be good, working like hell.”
Something was rankling and it surfaced, to a point, via an extraordinary tweet written by Oliseh within hours of his suspension. He said the club’s decision was “due to my refusal to participate in illegal actions at Fortuna Sittard and violate the law” and pointedly referenced Fortuna’s “foreign owners”. Their majority shareholder has, since July 2016, been the Turkish entrepreneur Isitan Gun; the club responded fiercely to the allegations with a statement that described them as “unfounded” and confirmed it will be taking legal action. In a follow-up conversation with the Observer, Oliseh said he could not elaborate on the remarks for legal reasons but that his departure was “a relief, after all”.
Explanations will presumably materialise in good time; local media had, even during Fortuna’s blistering early-season run, cast doubt on Oliseh’s relationships with various figures at the club, describing his style as autocratic and dictatorial. He has certainly never been a shrinking violet but contends there was a “vendetta” and, while admitting he is an “intense coach”, points to the huge improvement in results and style his methods wrought.
The timing of the split is unfortunate. Oliseh had been blazing a trail: a relative managerial novice beyond short spells in charge of his national team and two lower-league clubs in Belgium, the 1996 Olympic gold medal winner with Nigeria had been set fair to become the only African manager in charge of a top-flight team in Europe. “I receive tons of emails from African coaches who ask me what I did to get this far and if I have any ideas for how to do their coaching badges,” he said. “Many of them tell me my success may help their own progress. There’s some form of pressure in that, but it’s inspiring.”
That is a tale that will have to be revisited in his next employment, and enough suitors have shown their hand to suggest a new chapter will be forthcoming. For now, though, Oliseh must disentangle himself from a decidedly strange situation in the far south-east of the Netherlands that degenerated at an alarming rate of knots.
By Nick Ames. This article first appeared in The Observer.