January 21, 2006, was a miserable day for Portsmouth Football Club. Pompey travelled to St Andrew’s to play Birmingham City, who were a point and a place below the south coast side in the table. It wasn’t a happy trip.
If you wanted to get an idea of the sort of trouble Portsmouth were in at this stage of the season, the following statement is true: Jermaine Pennant tore them apart. That’s a combination of words that have rarely found themselves arranged in that order, but it was undoubtedly true that day, as a defence marshalled by Andys, O’Brien and Griffin, could find no answer to the fleet-footed winger. Pennant was off-balance as he fizzed a shot past Ashdown to double Birmingham’s lead before half-time and the Blues looked comfortable.
Less than 10 minutes into the second half, Harry Redknapp decided to make a change in order to salvage a game that was rapidly slipping away from them. The fourth official held up his board: 17 off, 23 on. Vincent Péricard, one-time Juventus prodigy and current entrepreneurial mastermind, trudged off to be replaced by an unfamiliar face to away fans. It was just Emmanuel Olisadebe’s second appearance for the club, and it proved to be his last.
The previous week, Olisadebe had been brought on to try and get his team back in a game but had failed to make much of an impression in a half-hour cameo as his side lost 1-0 away at Everton. He was equally effective at St Andrew’s. Two minutes after the Polish forward came on, Pennant planted a corner onto the sizeable forehead of Matthew Upson, who made it 3-0. The damage had been done and there was no chance of reprieve for Pompey.
Olisadebe cut a forlorn and isolated figure, helpless to influence his abject side. Mikael Forssell and David Dunn added a pair of late goals, meaning the game finished 5-0 to the home team in a vital relegation clash. Portsmouth were sinking deep into the quagmire.
Emmanuel Olisadebe had been signed from Panathinaikos at the start of the January transfer window, a hired gun acquired to give them some extra firepower as they tried to score their way out of the relegation zone. He was a textbook Redknapp signing and typical of the club’s transfer policy during this period – sign as many unfancied or slightly washed up players as they could lay their hands on, chuck ’em together and see what stuck.
Olisadebe joined a cadre of misfit forwards, including Svetoslav Todorov, Benjani Mwaruwari and Collins Mbesuma, who were tasked with keeping Portsmouth up. No wonder they were struggling.
The 2005-06 season eventually finished happily for Portsmouth, as they utilised the often overlooked strategy of relying on Pedro Mendes screamers to claw themselves to 17th and avoid relegation from the Premier League. The same can’t be said of Olisadebe. After just four months and two substitute appearances in England, he had his contracted terminated and he returned to Greece.
Things weren’t always this bleak for the striker. By the time he turned up to Fratton Park his career had started to wane as a combination of age and series of injuries began to take their toll. During his prime, though, he was a far more formidable presence.
He made his professional debut as a 17-year-old for Jasper United, a club based in southern Nigeria, relatively close to Olisadebe’s birthplace of Warri. The club, who had only been in existence for four years by the time of his first game, flourished during the forward’s two-year spell there, finishing runners-up in the Nigerian top flight in consecutive seasons and qualifying for the CAF Cup, Africa’s equivalent of the UEFA Cup, in the process.
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A record of a goal every other game over his two seasons at the club ensured that Olisadebe was an integral part of his team’s attacking unit and meant that his domestic league would soon prove to be a pond too small for this prodigiously growing fish.
Like many young African players, he had to make his way in Europe through the road less travelled. In Olisadebe’s case, that meant Poland. In 1997 he signed for Polonia Warsaw and it proved to be the start of a beautiful relationship. Despite being Warsaw’s oldest sports club, Polonia were traditionally the poor relations in the Polish capital – the Rayo Vallecano to Real Madrid – and had previously only won the league title and the Polish cup once each.
The army sponsorship of Legia Warsaw meant that, under the communist regime, they had access to all of the young men who were called up for compulsory military training. This gave them a much larger pool of talent to draw from and allowed them to consolidate their status at the expense of their local rivals. It eventually resulted in Polonia’s relegation and, starved of financial and playing resources, the club had spent 40 years outside of the top division before their promotion in 1993.
By the time that Olisadebe turned up at Stadion Polinii, a quiet revolution was taking place. His arrival coincided with that of two other notable figures; Janusz Romanowski, Legia’s chief financier, had defected across Warsaw the year before and was settling in for his second year as chairman when he appointed Jerzy Engel as his manager. It was Engel’s second spell in charge, having previously had a season in the job as a 24-year-old in the 70s. This time he had a wealth of experience under his belt and it made all the difference to Polonia’s fortunes.
Engel had been a forward himself in his extremely short-lived playing career, so he undoubtedly had an eye for a goalscorer. He snapped up Olisadebe, who was struggling to find a club after unsuccessful trial periods at other Polish clubs, and it heralded the start of a fruitful partnership. Polonia finished second in the Ekstraklasa, Poland’s top league, just three points behind champions ŁKS Łódź in Engel’s first season. Oli took time to settle, scoring just once, but Engel was patient and showed faith in his new man.
The next season saw a regression of sorts as they finished fifth, but that set back proved a minor one as the following year they captured a magnificent league and cup double, Polonia’s first silverware since the 1950s. Engel’s achievements hadn’t gone unnoticed, as the national team came knocking after they had sacked Janusz Wójcik. Although Engel had left halfway through the season, but it was his foundation that the Czarne koszule built on as they cantered to victory, finishing nine points clear of Wisła Kraków to win the Ekstraklasa.
The highlight of the campaign was a comprehensive victory away from home against Legia. Financial disparity still existed between the Warsaw sides, but Polonia’s success was built on a core of exciting young players, including Olisadebe who was still in his early-20s but had begun to hit his stride, complemented with a smattering of more experienced heads such as goalkeeper Maciej Szczęsny, Wojciech’s old man.
The striker opened the scoring in the Warsaw derby in a game that would end in a 3-0 win for his side. A hopeful punt from deep in the Polonia half sailed over the top of the defence for Olisadebe to chase. Before the ball had even been played, Olisadebe had spun and started to hurtle towards goal. The two centre-backs, sensing the danger, converged on the ball in an attempt to throttle the attack and barricade the striker from getting to the ball. Olisadebe somehow managed to wriggle between them, like a commuter desperately trying to squeeze onto a tube carriage as the doors slam closed, and managed to get in behind the Legia back line.
From there, he showed remarkable strength to hold off a despairing lunge from the defender and the patience to allow the goalkeeper to charge at him before he methodically lifted the ball over his head to bobble gently over the line. Pace, power and precision; it was Olisadebe at his best.
It was one of 12 league goals he netted in that title-winning season over the course of 24 appearances and few were sweeter than the one against Legia. He was maturing into an assured and confident finisher who was capable of causing problems for any defence on his day. Meanwhile, in his new role, Jerzy Engel had spotted an opportunity for Olisadebe.
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Poland had a goalscoring problem. They’d finished third in their Euro 2000 qualifying group on goal difference behind England. During that campaign, Poland had drawn blanks on three occasions and their failure to progress was effectively due to their lack of goals against Luxembourg (Poland ended up with a plus-four goal difference versus Luxembourg, England with plus-nine).
So the national team required someone who could reliably put the ball in the back of the net, and Engel’s former player was the perfect man for the job. Nigeria had overlooked Olisadebe’s form and ability in favour of other young forwards such as Bart Ogbeche and Julius Agahowa as potential partners for Nwankwo Kanu. The perceived poor quality of the Ekstralasa probably contributed to Olisadebe being disregarded by his homeland, so the Polonia striker accepted the offer of his former manager.
Although he’d been living in Poland for four years by the time of his call up, he was still a little short of the residency requirements for becoming a recognised citizen. The Polish FA called upon President Aleksander Kwasniewski (who had previously served as Minister for Sport) who expedited the naturalisation process in time for Olisadebe to play in their first qualifying fixture. It was a controversial decision, as it tends to be any time a player switches national allegiance, and not one that was well-received by some Polish supporters.
The truth is that vast numbers of footballers are immigrants, plying their trade away from home, but few end up naturalised and playing for the nation of their club over the nation of their birth. Invariably this process is carried out by football associations for reasons of practicality but fans tend to judge it as an ideologically motivated decision. This was certainly the case with Olisadebe who had to deal with an ugly, racially charged element to the xenophobic backlash. Krysztof Stanowski, a sports journalist, succinctly described the initial reaction of many fans to the New York Times: “He’s not a Pole. He’s something different.”
The consternation caused by a Nigerian-born player representing Poland was eased slightly by virtue of Olisadebe immediately finding his rhythm and scoring touch with his adopted nation. A goal on debut in a 1-1 draw in a friendly with Romania helped, relieving the pressure of that would have come with an extended wait for his first goal.
Poland’s first qualifying game for the 2002 World Cup was their most difficult, as they traveled to Kyiv to face the most formidable opponents in their group. They needn’t have worried, as Engel’s decision was vindicated instantaneously. Within two minutes Olisadebe had scored his first competitive goal for Poland and he bagged a second shortly after to put his side back in front following an Andriy Shevchenko equaliser. Poland left Ukraine with a 3-1 victory and it set the tone for the rest of the group.
Oli added another brace to his tally, this time in a 3-2 victory away to Norway, and supplemented these strikes with vital goals in wins against Armenia and Wales. Poland had found a solution for their paucity of goals and they regularly blew their opposition away, meaning that when it came time to play the return fixture against Norway, a win would guarantee qualification.
They won 3-0, Olisadebe obliging with his mandatory goal, and Poland had qualified for their first World Cup in 16 years with two games to spare. A final goal in a game against Ukraine helped clinch top spot for the Poles and left Olisadebe with the fine record of eight goals in 10 international matches.
During this time, the striker’s club career hadn’t been quite as successful as his international exploits. Polonia’s title meant that they found themselves in the qualifying rounds for the Champions League. They navigated their second round tie against Dinamo Bucharest comfortably courtesy of a 3-1 win in the second leg featuring a pair of goals in a three-minute spell from Olisadebe, who had also scored in the first leg. It meant they faced off with Panathinaikos, with the winner making it through to the group stages. A 2-2 draw in the first game left things in the balance, but a narrow 2-1 loss in the return leg meant that Polonia
A 2-2 draw in the first game left things in the balance, but a narrow 2-1 loss in the return leg meant that Polonia were relegated to the UEFA Cup, where they proceeded to lose the first round tie against Udinese without registering a goal.
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Olisadebe in action for Panathinaikos
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Their domestic form slipped as they were unable to defend their title and eventually finished fifth. The goals had dried up for their star striker and when he wasn’t firing, neither were Polonia. Clearly he’d made an impression in the games against Panathinaikos as the Greek side signed him for around £2.5 million in January 2001.He started well, maintaining a one in two goal ratio across his first season-and-a-half, including a pair of superb displays against Arsenal in the Champions League during his first full season for the Athens side.
In the match at Highbury, Olisadebe had his first encounter with Matthew Upson. Upson, then a fresh-faced youngster, clunkily chopped down his opponent in the box having been made to look like he was running in treacle by the Polish forward. Richard Wright saved the penalty, but could do nothing when Olisadebe jinked past Lauren and prodded the ball home inside the near post with the outside of his right boot.
Arsenal won that game with a penalty of their own but there would be a better result when Olisadebe netted in Athens against the Gunners. With 10 minutes remaining and Arsenal holding a 2-1 lead, Panathinaikos won a corner. It was curled in and Olisadebe slipped away from his marker by cleverly taking a step away from goal. He leapt into the air, slinging his neck like a trebuchet to powerfully plant a header past Jens Lehmann to nick a point for his side.
In the build-up to the 2002 World Cup, the forward’s form stuttered as he was disrupted by a series of niggling injuries and questions over his weight that plagued his preparation. He still made Engel’s squad and was on the teamsheet for their first game. In the sweltering humidity of Busan, Polan wilted as they tamely succumbed to a 2-0 loss to co-hosts South Korea. They didn’t fare much better in the second match, being skewered by a Pauleta hat-trick in a resounding four goal defeat to Portugal.
That horrendous start meant that Poland had already been knocked out by the time they played the USA in the final Group D fixture. Engel made numerous changes, but kept his main man upfront as the Poles looked to regain some pride. The plan worked, and quickly.
It was an odd goal. An inswinging corner was languidly floated towards the front post and a slight flick from an American defender caused the ball to ricochet onto Olisadebe’s shoulder and balloon straight into the air. The US defenders looked as though they couldn’t even comprehend of the concept of a football, let alone clear it, as they stood motionless, staring gormlessly at this alien spherical object descending from the heavens before Olisadebe emphatically bludgeoned it off the underside of the crossbar to give his team the lead. It was Poland’s first World Cup goal since Włodzimierz Smolarek scored against Portugal in Mexico 86. The USA were vanquished 3-1 and Poland were at least able to end the tournament on a high note.
Whenever Oli played for Poland he was inevitably eye-catching. He always stood out – both as an exciting, potent attacking force in a predominantly uninspiring side, and also as the only black player in an otherwise white team. At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, we’d see the photo negative version as Chris Birchall, a white player, represented Trinidad & Tobago, highlighting the fluidity of the concept of nationality in football and how it is separate from race. Except when it isn’t. The context is, of course, entirely different as Birchall didn’t have to face the racial abuse that many African players encounter when they play in Europe.
In the build-up to Euro 2012 there were widespread concerns over how the problems that the host nations (Poland and Ukraine) had with racism in their domestic leagues would impact the competition. The Dutch squad were allegedly subjected to abuse during a pre-tournament training session – although they decided against officially reporting it to UEFA – and Olisadebe decided to speak out.
In an interview with CNN, he declared racism in football to be “barbaric” and detailed his experience of racial abuse during his time in Poland: “It was really heavy on me. I’d never experienced something like that in the games where they made these monkey noises and throw bananas at you. I also heard this from other black players in other teams, they experienced the same thing. And in Poland it’s there, the racism in football, but I think it’s everywhere. The same in Poland, the same everywhere else.”
It’s a depressingly familiar story for anyone connected to football. Olisadebe did praise his team-mates for standing up to the fans with him by saying that disrespecting him was to disrespect the whole team, but that’s hardly consolation. That he first experienced this 20 years ago and that black players still face the same conditions today is a testament to just how far football has to go before it becomes the truly inclusive game it purports to be and an indictment of the efficacy of football’s governing bodies to deal with these issues.
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Jerzy Engel resigned following Poland’s exit from the World Cup and that virtually ended Olisadebe’s association with the national team too, barring a handful of sporadic appearances. Some more success came in the form of a league and cup double for Panathinaikos in 2004 but, like so many other players, injuries started to blight him and diminish his powers. His cunning and appreciation for space remained, but his body wasn’t sharp enough to match his mind – he was a tradesman let down by his tools.
It was perhaps this that meant that Portsmouth could sign him for so little; Harry Redknapp has never been one to turn down the chance to revive a flagging career on the cheap. He lasted just four months of his six-month contract with Pompey and then returned to Greece where he played briefly for Skoda Xanthi.
From there, he played a season at APOP Kinryas Peyias in Cyprus, regaining enough fitness and form to earn himself a move to Henan Construction. The spell in China resulted in some good figures for Olisadebe, both in terms of goalscoring and, undoubtedly, his bank balance. A serious knee injury threatened to end his career but he managed to return to playing even though he was never quite the same; a glass ornament irreparably fractured. At the end of his contract in Henan, he returned to Greece once again, eventually finishing his career with Veria FC before retiring in 2012 at the age of 34.
After his retirement, he told UEFA: “If it weren’t for the knee injuries, I could have done better, but I am still satisfied with what I achieved. I am a boy from Nigeria who went to do something in Europe and pulled it off. I have a lot of fantastic moments in my memory and nobody can take them away from me.”
That last sentence is particularly significant. Olisadebe’s career was certainly one defined by moments – he helped Polonia Warsaw win their first trophy in half a century; he became the first African-born player to represent Poland; he received two votes in the 2001 Ballon d’Or ballot; he took his adopted nation to their first World Cup in 16, years and scored their only goal at that tournament. But he was unable to replicate those moments, that success, throughout the course of his career. Does the fact he couldn’t maintain that level in the long term mean his achievements are any less cause for celebration?
Olisadebe’s career was atypical in so many ways and yet profoundly typical in terms of reminding us that the nature of success, especially in football, is transient at best. Often it’s as reliant on external circumstances as much as internal qualities. Clearly Olisadebe thrived under the guidance of Jerzy Engel as the two experienced their best moments when they worked together. Without an environment that was so conducive to success their performance suffered.
That Olisadebe achieved all that he did, in the face of the difficulties he faced due to racist attitudes, is to be commended. Even if he was unable to sustain that consistently, it’s worth acknowledging that most players fail to reach those heights – the overwhelming majority of footballers have mediocre, unremarkable careers, so he’s more fortunate than most. It’s not just truly great players who are worth canonising; players who provide us with truly great moments are worthy of our admiration. Football is a fleeting, ephemeral game, so we should enjoy the moments while they last.
But more than that, Olisadebe’s legacy is primarily as an immigrant footballer. Football’s intersection with, and right to comment on, politics is constantly called into question, despite the fact it is undeniably a reflection of the political reality in which it exists. It demonstrates one of the primary benefits of immigration: they help address skill shortages.
Football is an exaggerated version of this system, with foreign players being brought in to clubs to carry out a job due to their superior skills and experience compared to native players, but the principle is the same. In Olisadebe’s case, there was a dearth of talented Polish strikers with the requisite quality to play internationally, so the FA decided to utilise his abilities.
He’s emblematic of the mutually beneficial effects of immigration – moving to Poland allowed him to develop his skills and provided him with opportunities that wouldn’t have been afforded to him otherwise, while his adopted nation reaped the rewards of his very tangible contributions to the country through his international performances. The resentment and hostility that Olisadebe had to contend with was inflated by his visually pronounced otherness and it’s telling that the ill-feeling towards him only began to dissipate – or at least, began to be less explicitly expressed – once there was a concrete example of his contribution.
When we’re surrounded by tabloids perpetuating negative attitudes, as well as outright falsehoods, about foreign-born populations, it’s helpful to think about players like Emmanuel Olisadebe, whose career acts as a highly visible exemplar of the way football is enriched by immigrants.
By Tom Mason. Follow @Mase159