With first half done, Gernot Rohr seeks glorious encore
One of such is his successful effort at lifting the Super Eagles from a fallen side, which could not qualify for two straight African Nations Cup competitions, to a giant of world football close to the height it achieved in 1994, when the team was rated as the best five in the world.
Since he became Super Eagles’ Manager in August 2016, the Franco-German has been slowly, but steadily building a team of young players, which he believes will in no distant time fulfill the dreams of Nigerian football fans for a sturdy side.
While insisting that the future is bright, the Super Eagles’ coach says that that future is beginning to unravel with the Nigerian team setting some records, including being the first African side to qualify for the Russia 2018 World Cup and also qualifying for the 2019 African Nations Cup with a game to spare.
Rohr recently signed a new contract with the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) that will see him leading the country to the Qatar 2022 World. He said his target for now is to achieve a glorious encore in his stay with the Eagles.
Speaking at a Sports Editors’ Roundtable, tagged ‘Peak Breakfast with Rohr,’ organised by HS Media Group, owners of the HotSports brand and sponsored by Friesland Campina, makers of Peak Milk, Rohr projects that the next few months are crucial to country’s aspirations, especially at the 2019 African Nations Cup.
He adds that the quality of players available for selection in the Super Eagles has given him the belief that better days are ahead for his team, stressing: “I have achieved 70 per cent of what we set out to do from the onset. There is room still for improvement, but there is a bright future, because more young players are coming with more qualities, more fighting spirit and enthusiasm, which is what I like in my teams.
“I see a player like Alex Iwobi and the joy he shows when playing football. I see the joy in Kalu and Chukwueze… the enthusiasm they bring to football, the joy to play and the readiness to work for the team.
“The situation we have now is that even when a particular player is not around due to injury or suspension, the person replacing him brings the same spirit to the team. But there is still a lot of work to do… to make fewer mistakes in the defence. But I think we are on the right path.”
However, Rohr admits that his team still needs improvement in all the departments, saying the goalkeeping department is an area he needs to do more work on.
He stated: “Our goalkeeper is still young and needs more experience. You cannot be perfect in this area at the young age, but he is working hard everyday to improve.
“Our defence is also not at the level we want. Balogun is not playing in his club, which is not good for us. I hope he gets more chance to play. We have to look at ways to fortify the defence. Fortunately, we have found a good left back in Jamilu Collins. He is giving us satisfaction.
“I think we need more legs in the midfield. We have John Ogu, who is very powerful and decisive. We have the young Etebor, who is playing in Stoke, but he has to improve much more. We saw Mikel Agu, who did well in Asaba.
“Ighalo’s return has done well for us. But we are still searching for good players upfront. We don’t have players in the mould of Jay Jay Okocha, Rashidi Yekini, Finidi George or Sunday Oliseh, but we have a good team. We are open to better players because we have to improve on every department.”
Rohr is happy that his players have shown tremendous appetite for hard work and sacrifice, which he said could only lead to success. He explains that the team is blessed with quality leaders, who have made the task of coordinating the squad easy for the technical crew.
“Musa’s leadership of the team has worked very well because he brings the right spirit to the group, which is very important. He is a younger man than Mikel with a different mentality.
The captain is very important because he can help me to bring to the team not only the right spirit, but also the right organisation on the pitch and off it.
“We spend about 22 hours of the day and perhaps two hours on the pitch. He also helps in the hotel and in the travelling, which is very important.
“Mikel is also a fantastic captain. He brings a certain calm to the team and the players respect for what he has achieved. We are blessed because in his absence Musa has done well. Even if Musa is not around we have our third captain, Troost-Ekong, who is also a very good character and an example for all these young players we have now.”
Rohr reveals that Alex Iwobi is now his playmaker, the real number 10, adding that the Arsenal man’s vision and ability to dictate play will be crucial for the team going forward.
He adds, “Chukwueze wore number 10 jersey in Asaba because the jersey was available.
“A lot of people were very surprised that I invited him, but he is doing well in Villarreal. He is left footed and that is good for us. Kelechi Iheanacho was the only attacking left footer in our team.
“In the past, we even played some matches without a left footer, which is not good. When you play a game without at least one left-footer, there is always a problem.
There is a law in football that you must have at least one. With Collins, Kelechi, Ogu and Chukwueze we now have good competition in the squad.
“What we need is a good cocktail from all of them, right, left foot and people that can also head the ball.
“We have four wingers already in Chukwueze, Kalu, Musa and Simon Moses. We are lucky to have left footers now, who can cross very well. Today we see left footers playing in the right wing and crossing the game very well.”
One of the questions Rohr have been asked often is his seeming neglect of players from the local league, with his team made up of almost 95 per cent foreign-based players. The coach disagrees that he has no regard for local players, adding that he rather prefers players who are active and can add to his squad.
“You know we have had at least 20 local players from the local league since I became manager here. But the problem is that after one game they all run to Europe. Stephen Ezeh, Stephen Odey, Alhassan and a host of others.
“Sometimes we see that some people want local players in the team because they want to sell them to Europe. That is not what we want. We only look out for the quality of the players.
“But it is so difficult to have local players in the Eagles when they are not playing. You have a situation where for three or four months the players are not playing because the league has been halted abruptly. We are not in the national team to keep people fit, but we need people who are fit to play.
“We also need better infrastructure in the country to make the players better. To even play our matches there are not enough good pitches. The clubs don’t have pitches. Everywhere there is lack of infrastructure, especially pitches.
“The clubs don’t have junior teams. There must be U-20 teams, U-17 teams owned by clubs with good coaches to teach them the right way to play. If there is a regular league, better training for young players and better infrastructure, the players will also become better.
“The problem is that there is so much inconsistency. The league has not been active so the players cannot be scouted because you cannot invite players who are not active. We want to see the local players in the CHAN team, U-23 team etc. But I think President Pinnick, Seyi and Dikko know what we want and I am sure they are working on it.”
On the belief that he waits for far too long to make changes, he said switching players depends on the situation and the collective decision with his assistants. “Against Argentina at the World Cup, I wanted to bring in Iwobi for Musa, but my assistants, who were upstairs analysing the game, advised against that.
They told me that the Argentine defenders were afraid of Musa and changing him would be counterproductive, so I waited. Perhaps, I should have gone ahead to effect the change.
“We change according to situations and also, we know that something can happen to change the dynamics of a game, like a red card to the goalkeeper happening when you have already made all the changes. That means you cannot bring another goalkeeper and would be forced to play without a goalkeeper.”
Rohr thanked the Delta State government for providing the Stephen Keshi Stadium, which he says will complement the Godswill Akpabio Stadium and the Adokie Aimeisimaka Stadium in Port Harcourt as Super Eagles match venues.
He, however, advised the Delta State government to work on certain aspect of the stadium to make it perfect for games.
“The players prefer good grass pitches all the time. The Asaba stadium is a brand new one, the grass is only six months old and is not yet of top quality. We spoke with the grass man in Asaba on how to cut the grass and he promised to do it well and then take away the old grass and not leave it on the pitch.
“Everybody saw that the ball was not bouncing very well in the game against Uganda. They need better equipment for rolling the grass. We had very warm welcome from the people and the governor. That is why we need to go to other venues to play so that Nigerians in different cities will see their team.
“But I think the players believe Uyo is the best pitch in the country. This is also what I believe. It is a stadium where you can have access to the dressing room without hassles. In Asaba, it was difficult to get into the stadium. For the first time in my long career, I had to come down from the bus to try to see that people left the entrance so that the bus could enter. So, the Asaba stadium needs better organisation, better access to the stadium. In Uyo we have all of that. It is a World Cup stadium, but it is good that other states are building good stadia so that they can host the Eagles.”
The coach laments that Nigeria is the only country that does not play important matches in the federal capital and big commercial cities like Lagos. He adds, “We cannot play in Abuja because the stadium is not good. There is a stadium, but there is no good grass. And it is not too costly to construct good grass pitches.
“I will also like to play in Lagos. I saw the national stadium in Lagos but there is no grass. Lagos should be able to receive the Super Eagles and other national teams.”
On the allegation that his team has no defined pattern, Rohr says, “We play collective football. The World Cup taught us that possession does not win matches. We want to go straight to goal, with vertical passes, quickly and we want to give our strikers a lot of time to be creative in their approach.
“When we lose the ball, everybody has to fight to get it back through pressing. We have quick players and we have this fast kind of play. We have scored a lot of goals, even though not lately. That is why we need quality players. The strikers can dribble and also play for the team.”
On players changing allegiance to Nigeria, Rohr says the decision must come from the players, who must write to their current federations indicating they want to switch to Nigeria.
“In Ola Aina’s case it took eight months because in UK four federations in the country must decide. It is easier with other countries like Germany and Austria. I spoke with Kevin Akpoguma’s father and he said Kevin should make the decision himself. And Kevin told me he is not ready yet.
“Ademola Lukman and Solanke are not convinced. They have not made up their minds so we will allow then to decide. We will go back to them later, but we cannot force anybody to play for us. It is very important decisions for them to make. Noah Bazee is also on our radar.”
Rohr dismissed the claim by some pundits that his team struggles when faced with physical sides, as demonstrated by the last match against Uganda and that the Eagles cannot cope with the robust African football they will face at the Cameroun 2019 African Nations Cup. He says the solution lies in preparing well for the competition.
“We need to get another physical coach not only to work when we are in camp, but also to go to the clubs and work with players who need help.
“Sometimes our players need individual coaching. Now we have Tyrone Ebuehi, who is coming back from injury, we sent a coach to work with him. We did it with Uzoho when he wasn’t playing for Deportivo before the World Cup.
“At the World Cup, we played against physical sides like Iceland and we were ready. It is important to be fit physically and now that we will have three weeks to prepare for Cameroun, we will be ready.”
Rohr rates Nigeria as the most passionate football-loving nation than all the other countries he has coached. He admits that sometimes the passion could be taken too far, but he is happy that the NFF has given him free hand to do his job.
“This passion comes with pressure from the people. But I have never had this pressure from the NFF. We had a technical committee that became difficult to work with after the loss to South Africa last year.
“They wanted to do our job for us because we lost that game. That was the only moment when we felt they tried to influence our choices. But the current technical committee is different. They allow us to do our job. We are working with good people now. Before we make our list, I consult my assistants, my staff and scouts and sometimes the medical staff. We send our list to the technical committee and they always approve the list. It is also in my contract and the present committee respects it.”
On his relationship with Ogenyi Onazi and the absence of the Turkey-based team from his squad lately, Rohr said it was all down to medical issues.
He adds, “Onazi’s case is very simple, he has inflammation of the tendon. In Uyo, he told us honestly that he can only play with injections. I spoke with the doctor and the doctor said it was a big risk for the team and also for the player. So, we explained it to Onazi that we cannot do that. I have to take care of my players’ welfare, that is why I agreed that it is better for him to treat himself than risk the injury. But we were surprised when we saw that he played a game soon after in his club. I told him it is a big risk for him. Like everybody he is part of the team. Some clubs do these injections, but our medical people refused to do that, and I am with them on that.”
On his obvious humility and ability to stay away from scandals, Rohr attributes it to education and upbringing. “I had a wonderful father and seven siblings. So I learnt to share and be accommodating. He was a teacher and also a coach. He told us that the first thing you must have in life is humility to be able to share and to respect other people.
“I was born after the Second World War when life was not easy, but we learnt to adapt to situations.”
On his relationship with the NFF, especially on welfare issues, Rohr said Nigeria has been a good employer, adding, however, that money is not the most important thing in his relationship with Nigeria.
“In other African countries, I had to wait for some months before the money will come. But I know that when the work is well done the money will come. That was what I tell the players that if the money didn’t come immediately, lets work well first to attract the money.
“Before I came here, I heard so many negative things about the country, but I wanted to find out things myself and draw my own opinion about the country. It is so far positive. My contract has not been respected 100 per cent, but I know it will be respected fully.”
Rohr wants a situation where he will have access to the other national teams to help develop a collective approach to the game, saying he has written to the NFF on that.
“I have proposed to the NFF to have a meeting with the coaches of the junior teams so that we can talk and have one philosophy for all the teams. I think the board will grant our demand.
“We had a good relationship with the CHAN team because Yusuf Salisu, my assistant, was its coach. Imama is also in my team and I hope he will be in charge of the U-23 team. Sometimes, we have very young players who are not ready for the Super Eagles, so we need a situation where we can send them to the U-23 team or the U-20. We should have a good communication with all the teams.”
Rohr reveals that he plans to play five friendly games before the Nations Cup next year, adding, however, “we want to choose the opponents very well. We will play two games in March, one being the last qualifier against Seychelles.
“We have to go to teams to speak with the players, their coaches and scouts. We want to see the results of the tests they did on our players and know the approach we should adopt for every individual player.”