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Emmanuel Olisadebe

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.

 

Nigeria's loss is Poland's gain - how Nigerian Emmanuel Olisadebe ended up leading Poland to the 2002 World Cup.
 
After a long period in the football wilderness, Poland will be travelling to Japan and South Korea in 2002 having qualified for their first World Cup since 1986. Their team is spearheaded by one Emmanuel Olisadebe, a 22-year old Nigerian-born striker who adopted Polish citizenship merely a year ago and in doing so, became the first black player to represent Poland at national team level.
 
Now playing for Greek club Panathanaikos, it's an incredible journey which began four years ago, when Emmanuel was discovered by Polish scouts whilst playing for Nigerian club Jasper United. Having failed to impress coaches in trials at Ruch Chorzow and Wisla Krakow, Emmanuel was eventually taken on by the unfashionable Polonia Warsaw club, long regarded as traditional strugglers in the league.
 
However Emmanuel quickly developed a reputation as a deadly penalty-box predator and led the team to an unprecedented League and Cup Championship double in the 2000 season.
 
At that stage, Zbigniew Boniek, arguably Poland's greatest player ever, began a campaign to secure Polish citizenship for Emmanuel so that he could represent Poland in the 2002 World Cup qualifying matches. Just before the start of the first qualifier, Emmanuel was granted Polish citizenship (rumoured to have been ordered by presidential decree!) and with seven goals to his name and World Cup qualification secured, no-one in Poland is complaining about any preferential treatment given to Emmanuel!
 
Of course, many observers would ask why Olisadebe chose to turn his back on playing for his home country Nigeria. However, it appears that the Nigerian Football Association were as much to blame for failing to recognise Emmanuel's potential.
 
In a recent interview with African Soccer Magazine he said: "I knew I might have played for Nigeria some day but the trouble was I did not know when, maybe when I was 30, and I didn't want to keep waiting and dreaming. I was playing in Poland, in Europe, playing well, scoring goals, won the league and never received a call-up. Yet players in the German Third Division who don't even command a regular place were invited. I kept asking myself, what's going on?"
 
So when Poland's national coach Jerzy Engel offered Emmanuel the chance to join Poland's quest for World Cup qualification, he had little hesitation in accepting the opportunity.
 
The decision to take up Polish nationality is one which Emmanuel has little difficulty in reconciling. "It is not only about football. Football is probably 10 or 15 years of active life. With Polish citizenship I could do other important things after retiring from football. Anyway, I am not the first Nigerian to have acquired foreign citizenship. I have Nigerian blood flowing in my veins and nobody can take that away."
 
Nevertheless, as an unknown player who was one of the very few black citizens in Poland, it was a struggle for Emmanuel to adapt to his new life in Eastern Europe at first. "I think they weren't used to seeing black people", said Emmanuel.
 
He also had to battle hard to overcome the taunts of racist fans during his early days in Poland and Emmanuel recalls one dreadful experience in an away match against Lodin: "Nothing like that had ever happened. I was shocked. I took the ball to the corner flag and all of a sudden it was as if it was raining bananas. Around 50 or so came pouring down on me. I was in shock, but the players from the other team were saying to me: 'Emmanuel, don't worry, they're hooligans, they're drunkards.' Afterwards the club sent me a letter of apology."
 
"I guess I've got to live with it", he explained. "It doesn't bother me anymore, but it's everywhere and if I can be involved in the fight against racism I would love to help. I've done interviews and been on posters in Poland, which has helped, but it's not a small problem and takes time."
 
However, the vast majority of Poland's football fans recognise Emmanuel's huge contributions to Polish football's resurgence. "The last couple of games have been marvellous" said Emmanuel. "They chant my name to motivate me. I never expected anything like this."
 
Emmanuel is also quick to praise his fellow players in the national squad. "From the start everything has been good. They knew I was young, and they encouraged me, told me not to worry and that nobody would scream at me, that I was playing for a nation and all I needed to do was to play naturally as if I was playing for my club. It was great, the right message I need to get going."
 
Whether Emmanuel will spark a trend in African players representing European national teams remains to be seen. If the Nigerian team had been more vigilant, perhaps Emmanuel would be lining up in the 2002 World Cup representing the country where he grew up. As it is, the tournament could provide us with one of the most intriguing scenarios ever witnessed - a Nigerian-born player in a Poland shirt lining up against his countrymen in a match which determines who gets through to the next round of the World Cup!

 

Michael Lee, October 2001

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