By the start of the year 1999, Sunday Oliseh was already established as one of the best midfielders not only in Africa but also in the world.
Oliseh was only 20 when he helped Nigeria win a second Africa Cup of Nations title at Tunisia ’94.
Later that year, the young midfielder was also a prominent member of the Super Eagles squad that reached the second round of the FIFA World Cup in the United States.
Even more impressively, Oliseh played a key role as Nigeria’s Dream Team powered to Africa’s first-ever gold medal at the Olympic Games in 1996.
And after helping Nigeria reach the knockout phase of France ’98 and Ajax win consecutive league titles in 1998 and 1999, there were not many players more highly rated than the Delta State-born midfielder.
Oliseh even made it to the final 50 shortlist for the 1998 Golden Ball award.
Roma, favourites for Oliseh
It was, therefore, no surprise that he was one of the most in-demand players heading to the 1999 summer transfer window.
However, AS Roma were the leading candidate to complete the signing of the then-25-year-old.
The Giallorossi were putting together a formidable team under the guidance of respected Italian manager Fabio Capello and, Oliseh was to be the final piece of their jigsaw.
Roma firmed up their interest and offered €10 million for the Nigeria international.
A huge figure at the time, the fee would make Oliseh Nigeria’s joint-second most expensive signing in history alongside George Finidi and just behind Austin Okocha (€12.40 million).
Interestingly, Ajax accepted the offer, leaving it to Roma to thrash out personal terms with the player.
Juventus beat Italian rivals to Oliseh
But about this time, Juventus’ late interest in Oliseh surfaced.
The Bianconeri were searching for an heir to aging midfielder Didier Deschamps and had identified Oliseh as the perfect replacement for the Frenchman.
But Roma were so convinced they had a deal for Oliseh sealed up that the President, Franco Sensi, told the press:
“Oliseh is a Roma player. We are already done with Ajax. He arrives in a club that has nothing less than Juve.”
Unknown to Roma, Juventus had matched and bettered their rivals’ offer to Ajax and had offered more in salary to Oliseh.
While the alarm bells regularly sounded in the Capital city, President Sensi was adamant that Oliseh to Roma was already in the bag.
“Oliseh may also have signed an agreement with them, but Juve cannot own him.
“Ajax sold him to me a week ago, and I have a regularly signed contract in Amsterdam. Among other things, we closed with higher figures than what I hear about.”
But Juventus’ behind-the-scenes manoeuvers had won over Oliseh. And on June 22, 1999, the Nigerian announced he had decided to snub Roma in favour of a move to Juventus.
“I have decided I’m going to Juve. (Contrary to Sensi), I had never promised to sign for Roma. It is true, there have been talks, but I have made my decision.
“Roma can also have an agreement with Ajax; it doesn’t matter since nobody can own my card if I don’t want to. Juventus is the best solution for my future.”
Oliseh’s disappointing time in Turin
Roma were stunned, Juventus rejoiced, and Oliseh became the first-ever African to sign for the Bianconeri.
But the midfielder’s stay in Turin did not go according to plan.
Manager Carlo Ancelotti had several midfielders at his disposal, including Edgar Davids, Alessio Tacchinardi, and Vincenzo Maresca, and he decided on rotation.
But by the end of the campaign, Oliseh made only eight Serie A appearances clocking up a meagre 253 minutes.
It was an unacceptable situation for the midfielder, and he wanted out. Months later, he was on his way to German Bundesliga giants Borussia Dortmund.
Oliseh later confessed that going to Juventus was a wrong decision and that he wanted to leave the club much earlier.
The Olympics gold medallist explained:
“Ancelotti was young. I was not the only one who played little. Other players were also in my situation.
“It wasn’t one of the best moments of my career; I didn’t feel well in the locker room. I didn’t like how I was treated. In September, after three months, I asked to leave, but the director Moggi told me no.
“The following year, I went to Germany to Borussia Dortmund: the offer had arrived, and after half an hour I had already signed.
“With them in the 2001-02 season, I won the Bundesliga and played in the UEFA Cup final. It is no one’s fault for how my experience at Juventus went: it was not the right time to move there.”
On what regrets he had about not signing for AS Roma, Oliseh said,
“After two years at Ajax, Roma and Juve wanted me. I wanted to play with the Giallorossi because they were led by Fabio Capello, a coach I liked very much and who had come to make a good team.
“I consider him a great coach, one of the best in the world: he had made me understand what he wanted, and he was clear with me. I have a lot of respect for this man.
“The Bianconeri had made a better offer to my team. Ajax wanted to sell me to Juve instead of Roma, so in the end I went to Turin.”
Life after Juventus
Oliseh spent four years in Dortmund, where he won the Bundesliga and claimed a runners-up medal in the UEFA Cup.
He would later represent VfL Bochum and Belgium’s Gent before retiring in 2006.
He has since taken up a managerial career and coached the Super Eagles and the Netherlands’ Fortuna Sittard. Until recently, he was the manager of German lower division side SV 19 Straelen.
Away from football, the former Julius Berger midfielder has a flair for farming.
Still, when Oliseh looks back at the biggest deal of his career, it would be with a sense of what could have been.
Quotes credit: Italy 24.