Flying to Frankfurt with a Super Eagle

The author writes about a fleeting encounter with the former captain of Nigeria's national football team, Sunday Oliseh.

Mike Gibson, via Flickr.

I arrived at Murtala Muhammed airport after my last trip to Lagos dressed for the heat in drop crotch pants and a loose tank, both in varying shades of mottled grey. I kept my lowtop Chucks loosely laced, so I could slip them off at security. After the customs official who glanced through my bags advised me to get married instead of focusing on school, two men tried to chat me up, asking if I was a footballer. When I said no, they switched their guess over to basketball. I figured it was because of my tattoos—I always consider covering them up at the airport just to avoid the trouble they’ll cause, but Nigeria is too hot for sleeves. So instead I get my passports rechecked and rechecked, even when I’m cleared and waiting in the security line, because there’s always some immigration official who singles me out and demands to see my papers again. I’ve long since given up on flying under the radar.

Consequently, when the man I was standing behind at the gate casually glanced over at me, I wasn’t surprised. I know what I look like to Nigerians. Instead, I glanced back at him, noting that he was tall and well dressed, evaluating his shoes like New York taught me to. When he handed his passport to the agent, I noticed the cloud of dark freckles splashed over the bridge of his nose and cheekbones and I tried to guess if he was a redhead. He turned towards me and smiled a little, asking if I was going to the UK.

‘No, I’m going to the US,’ I said, and he winced.

‘Sorry,’ he said, and I made a face back.

‘I know.’ America. These days, it didn’t need extra words. We continued chatting and he told me that he lived in Belgium, close to Germany. People kept interrupting us to greet him and shake his hand, until I turned to him, too curious to ignore it.

‘You have to tell me how everyone knows you.’

He smiled. ‘I’ll give you three guesses.’

I thought of my brother. ‘You fly a lot.’

‘Nope.’

‘You work for Lufthansa.’

He laughed. ‘I’m too Nigerian for that.’

‘You … work for the airport.’ He winced again and I laughed. ‘Fine, what is it?’

He hesitated for a moment. ‘I used to be captain of the national football team,’ he admitted, and I slapped my palm to my face.

‘I should’ve guessed you were someone famous! What’s your name?’

‘It’s very easy to remember. It’s one of the days of the week, Sunday.’

My face stayed blank. ‘What’s your last name?’

Sunday laughed like he didn’t quite believe me. ‘There’s only one footballer with my first name. Look it up.’

‘Ah please, you want me to go and Google you? That’s not going to happen.’ He gave in.

‘Oliseh,’ he said, and the name clicked into my head like a sure thing.

‘Oh, I know you!’ I exclaimed and he laughed. ‘I’ll pretend like I believe you,’ he replied, but I meant it. I tend to remember names in their fullness and his name was stored there like Kanu Nwankwo or Jay-Jay Okocha.

Football is Nigeria’s national sport and you could feel it through every thread of my childhood. I remember our street erupting in screams when we scored goals or won, the roar pushing in through our windows. I was seven when Rashidi Yekini scored that first World Cup goal, and the memory of his face screaming into the net with his arms bent and clutching is permanent in my mind. I grew up in Enyimba City and our football chant made it out to a stage in Lagos where I watched Bantu singing ‘Nzogbu Enyimba, nzogbu-zogbu, Enyimba-enyi’ like we were all in Aba. Just a few weeks ago, I was having dinner at Yellow Chilli in Lagos as the Nigerian women’s team played on TV, and before I knew it, I found myself shouting and groaning at the screen with the other people in the room. I am Nigerian. I believe in the magic of football.

I had also bragged about the Olympic gold we won in ‘96 enough times, so I was duly impressed to be in casual conversation with one of the medalists, but I played it cool. As boarding started, we chatted about Sunday’s family in Belgium, his work with FIFA, and some trouble around the current captain Vincent Enyeama that he’d had to address. Once in the isolation of my seat, I Googled him and texted a few of my friends, laughing at myself for not connecting his last name.  When the plane landed in Frankfurt, we discussed racism in European football over croissants and before we parted ways, I whipped out my camera and made him take a selfie with me because, come on.

It’s Sunday Oliseh. I’m only Nigerian, after all.

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