By Stel Stylianou of Shoot The Defence
Moving to Belgium at a young age:
I went to Belgium at the tender age of 16 and everything was different; the weather, language, culture, everything. What it taught me was to quickly learn languages and what the gaffer was talking about
Differences between Belgian and Italian football:
The Belgian football was open and when I went to Italy I learned that everything was about results. A lot of players were built not to concede and foreign players were meant to make a difference offensively. Italian football was compact, more solid and tactical. Nothing like what it is now. The 90’s was result oriented.
On the Bundesliga:
The Bundesliga is the best league in the world. It’s the most complete league. You have attacking, defensive, transitional play, physical and to a larger extent – technical. It’s the most organised and what makes it special, it’s the league that has the most fans going to games. Dortmund have over 80,000 fans every home game. Most of the games have 50,000 fans like second division FC Koln. As a player you don’t have to worry about your financial payments. It’s where I polished what my coaching could be like.
Africa Cup Of Nations success:
The AFCON 94 for me is very special. It was my first major tournament for Nigeria and we were in Tunisia, going in as favourites. We were able to win it and played great football. It was the breakthrough for me at the highest level. I was blessed to give the pass for the opening goal for Yekini and assisted the winner in the final, so it was really special for me.
Atlanta Olympics 1996:
We weren’t confident we would win it but knew we had a special team. We were hungry. Really hungry. We had very little resources to prepare and at one point slept in motels. We had players who wanted to prove themselves. Young, hungry and unknown. Such a talented group like Jay Jay Okocha, Tijani Babangida, Emmanuel Amunike, Daniel Amokachi, Uche, Babayaro; great players who were ready to explode.
We qualified from our group before the last game which was against Brazil, and our aim wasn’t to top the group but to kick them out. Unfortunately we lost that game but dominated Mexico in the next round and beat them 2-0. The Brazil game in the semi final- with all their stars – was when the Nigerian team really came on the scene – and then there’s the final – losing 2-1 to come back and win 3-2 with the whole world watching.
Atlanta Olympics semi final victory over Brazil:
One thing about our team is the fact we didn’t need outside influences to motivate each other. We were in the dressing room criticising each other if we weren’t doing what we were supposed to. We motivated and encouraged each other. Our ambition for the semi final was to bring something home – at least a bronze medal – but God had the gold prepared for us.
The moment we equalised in the semi final we knew we had them. Their talisman Ronaldo was injured and couldn’t play extra time. They had a great team with Ronaldo, Bebeto, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos but Ronaldo was really bothering us.
Victory over Argentina in the final:
When the referee blew the final whistle, it dawned on us that we’d done something extraordinary. We started doing our African dancing, we saw the stadium go wild. The best part was seeing the Argentine fans applaud us. We put our country on the map; the first third world nation to win a gold medal in football.
At home they went crazy. It was midnight in Nigeria when we kicked off, so you can imagine that when the referee blew the final whistle it 2am. The whole country was awake and the President went on national TV immediately and declared 2 days national holiday.
One thing is for sure, if Nigeria ever win the World Cup the whole country will be off work for a month. Players won’t ever have to play again.
It’s the best club to play for, especially if you’re young and developing. Training at Ajax was like going to school. In fact, it was in 1998 while I was at Ajax that I decided I would be a coach when I retired. The superstars coming out of Ajax aren’t exceptionally talented but the club specialises in so many departments, by working and working on many aspects. It became clear that if you have your principles, playing culture and talent – all you have to do is think of playing. It’s a club that holds its own culture of how football has to be played and tries to stick to it. Of course it has cost them titles as world football has changed. However, once they reignite Cruyff’s philosophy they will dominate the world again.
That goal against Spain:
What made it so special is the situation before the tournament. We’d lost practically every friendly in the build up to the competition and were beaten 5-1 to the Dutch before the opening game. Spain hadn’t lost in 23 games so beating them was special.
Against Spain we brought back the spirit of our 96 team. We were behind twice and to score that kind of goal, on the world stage, I think that was the best way God helped my family name to be cemented in world football. I remember watching Zubizaretta for many years. He was an exceptional goalkeeper.
Early impression of Juventus:
Everything is about the club. It isn’t organised like the average Italian club. It’s one of the best organised clubs in the world. The Agnelli family manage it like their other businesses and the first thing they tell you when you come is: “Everything you need, you get it. But play your football”.
Playing alongside Zidane:
Zidane taught to stay humble and focus on your football. A lot is said about this man but he’s probably the best team mate I ever had. Humble, focused, talented, hard working and he’s blessed.
Everything the best players could do, he could do 20% better. If it comes to ball control, technique exhales, passing, shooting, even headers, he was totally complete. He was a real playmaker. If you have difficulties, play him the ball – he’ll find a solution. Play him the ball. Sometimes you’d play him the ball, with one touch he’d open the game up. He was the most modest. Drove a small car, family oriented and very hard working.
I’ve experienced it so many times as a player and as a coach but it’s something I accept that will always be there. My philosophy in life is “succeed in spite of it” because I don’t know if it’ll ever be erased. It has existed since the time of Jesus Christ. Racism changes forms. It isn’t openly put out there like it was. The best way to handle it is to not make it your problem – let it be theirs. Sometimes you want to react but you can’t because that’s when you lose. It’s up to the authorities to take measure so that it stops (at least) in soccer.