From a humble begining as the Head Coach of Super Eagles two years ago, the journey so far has taken Gernot Rohr to an enviable record as the first tactician to have qualified the senior national team to two major tournaments; Russia 2018 World Cup and next year’s African Cup of Nations in Cameroon, with a game in hand. Femi Solaja was at the ‘Peak Breakfast interview’ session organised by HS Media Group on behalf of Friesland Campina for Rohr. The gaffer spoke on the good, the bad and the ugly side of his journey with the national team so far. Excerpt…
Before you took the job in Nigeria, you must have been privy to this notorious belief that we have this tendency of owing both local and foreign coaches. What convinced you to take the job especially when you were not the only coach pencilled down for the post?
I don’t like to speak about money, I was not afraid to take the job. First, I was free and I’m guide by this personal philosophy of getting a job well done and hoping that the financial reward will come at the appropriate time. It was a bit risky but fortunately the officials (NFF) always pay the cash flow at the appropriate time and the result till date shows that we never had players’ revolt over unpaid allowances and same thing applies to me.
Many pundits see you as a very humble coach with several working experience. Which of your past and present jobs appears most challenging so far in your career?
My coaching career has been full of ups and downs right from time as club coach with the likes of Bordeaux when the club was going down and eventually relegated and the battle to return was a fierce one. I have players like Didier Deschamp, Lizarazu and so on and I had to bring the club from relegation to the elite division and same thing with Nice. However, my biggest challenge as national team coach is thw Super Eagles job in Nigeria. Here, I met a team that was yet to play at a major tournament after missing out at two African Cup of Nations tournaments and we were grouped to play in one of the toughest groups in the World Cup qualifying series and as we would have it, we found ourselves in the Group of Death again in Russia. However, the challenges are not over now as we prepare to go to the Nations Cup next year Cameroon.
Going to the World Cup last summer, your team was adjudged one of the youngest in the pool and we seem to be going on the same trend going to the Nations Cup next year in Cameroon. Do you think the team is too young to win AFCON 2019?
I don’t agree that when you have a young team, you are at disadvantage but I must tell that we have learnt a lot from the World Cup especially in the match against Argentina when we conceded a late goal and it was same mistake against South Africa last week. We will continue to work on that so we hold on any form of slim advantage. Because of this, our team is still open to a lot of changes especially in the defense and midfield. We will still try other players using the last qualifying match against Seychelles and also exploit the FIFA Windows to ensure that we maximize all our potentials going to the Nations Cup next year in Cameroon.
What was going through your mind when two legitimate goals were disallowed in South Africa and why did you play Samuel Kalu on the right side of the defence?
First I could not judged the legitimacy of the goals from the position I was during the match and it was from the play-back on television that I knew that we were denied legitimate goals. However, the referees are human too and this explains why Visual Assistant Referee (VAR) will help a lot during crucial goal decisions. But you must now that Ahmed Musa may have been too fast with the pace for the assistant referee to pick the offside call. Although our intension was to win the match and top the group, the result still put Nigeria in front foot, hence we must ensure that we win the last match at home to place too after the series. As for your second question, I saw Kalu play in that role for Bordood. They bought him for €8million and play that role very well and was a replacement for Simon Moses whom unfortunately was injured before the World Cup and we have to draft Kalu into his position. He is a good striker but at the same time a good defender with a lot of pace. He can defend on the lines and at same run the flank. This explains why we are playing 3-5-2 which was the role Victor Moses played against Iceland at the World Cup it requires a lot of commitment. What this means is that in different match tactics we have different players.
From your response, it seems you are quick to allow the mistake in South Africa to go unnoticed may be because the result had no negative impact to the progress of the team but at the last World Cup finals in Russia, you criticised the referee for denial of a second penalty for Nigeria against Argentina in the last group match. How do we reconcile this especially the complexity in the application of the rules of the game?
Point of correction, I was only bitter internally and not outward as a result of the match especially as regards the denial of the second penalty kick. Everybody saw that it was a handball and a similar way the world champion, France got similar opportunity and it was given. Don’t forget there are undercover influences when a situation like this arise on the field. Even in the communication rooms, it’s possible they influence him not to give the second penalty and don’t forget there are lots of Argentine fans in the stadium just as big players like Messi, Aguero trying to influence the match officials. However it is unprofessional to speak against the referee’s decision because it comes to hunt you again and they are human too. But I’m happy with the reaction of my players after the World Cup exit. We have played four games and achieved positive results including the match in Liberia where we played with their President George Weah on the pitch just two days after our match in Seychelles
You mentioned Victor Moses and even justified his attributes. What is the situation with him and would you say you have finally replaced the captain of the team John Mikel Obi?
The situation with Mikel Obi was that after the World Cup, he wanted to take a break from the national team and he told me that when he is motivated again he will return and don’t forget that he had some injuries. So we remain on this position for now but looking back, Mikel Obi is a fantastic player and his potentials as a leader is really working well for the team. The assistant captain Ahmed Musa is good too with different mentality at organising the team on the field and even after Musa we have William Troost Ekong and things are really working well for the team. As for Victor Moses, he told me but I was surprise after the World Cup that he insisted he wants to concentrate on his club football. I tried to convince him but to no avail and I guess he wants to regain his position but with the way things are now the door is open for him to return and I am hoping that he would have sorted himself out in the next transfer window.
After over two years now, if you want to evaluate the team what percentage will you rate Eagles now?
As at the last World Cup finals we were at 60 percent but as at last week in South Africa the team had attained 70 percent but there is still a lot of work to do in all the departments.
We have to find replacement where necessary especially in the goalkeeping and defence. In the attack, I’m happy that Ighalo has regained his striking form and we are looking forward to competition from other players. However one thing we must understand with the team is that in the past we have star players like Okocha, Kanu and the rest but not it’s an assemblage of average players that has transformed into formidable team.
You spoke about Odion Ighalo but his club has been relegated in China does it mean anything to you and secondly it appears you do not give a damn to local players?
I love local players, I love local people and it’s on record that since I became the Super Eagles coach, I have used 20 home based players from the local league for my matches. However, when you invite a player from the local league today and in the next few months he has eloped to Europe for greener pasture what do you do in that situation? Although it’s good for them to ply their trade else where but let me inform you that the activities of most of the football agents is not helping us with the invitation. All they want a platform for these players to get a good pay job outside the country for their selfish reason!
At the same time the quality of the players also depend on the competitiveness of the league. When you play a season for just few months how do we get to know the quality of the players and don’t forget that the domestic league lacked standard infrastructure with no good playing turf and the financial motivation is not encouraging as well. On Ighalo, he has been an unfortunate player since the match against Argentina. Remember he came in as substitute for Iheanacho and because of the missed chances fans were against him. Ighalo was not the reason why we lost to Argentina but a collective responsibility of the team. Everybody is happy now that he is scoring for the national but I think he will look for a top division team when the Chinese season reopens next year.
You were heavily critised for not making late substitutions in the match against Argentina and thus allowed the South Americans to come back from the dead just like it happened to the team at USA ’94 when we could not sustain the lone goal lead against Italy. What are the take away from these two scenarios?
The talks about late substitutes would not have come up if we had won the match or at most kicked out Argentina from the World Cup. At half time we made one change out of mandatory three. I wanted to bring in Alex Iwobi for Ahmed Musa in the 70th I discussed with the bench and we agreed but in the stand we also have match readers who kicked against the change because Musa was giving the Argentines a lot of problems and they are afraid and that I should wait and sometimes you concede to arguments but it was a regret and next time I will not wait before I take such a crucial decision.
What style of football has Gernot Rohr introduced into our football?
We play collective football with the aim to reach the goal at shortest possible means. What the World Cup as taught us is that possession football is not the best. We attach and defend together instead of passing game that consumes a lot of energy. Everybody must participate and the ability to use the wings with several fast players in the pool now. We have strikers that can dribble and it must be to the advantage of the team.
Where will you consider the real home of Super Eagles between Uyo and Asaba and perhaps any other ground that we have used since you came to Nigeria?
The players love to play on good grass. Asaba pitch is new and we told the ground men what they need to do because the ball was not bouncing properly but the Governor and the people of Asaba are nice to us and it was a good thing that the team travelled round the country. However, I think the players like Uyo where they had played and won several matches and it’s a modern stadium while Asaba was a refurbished arena. But aside whether which one is better it will be good for the team to travel round and finally return to Abuja where the grass are not in existence.
Would you be willing to work with coach Salisu Yusuf again when the ban on him is lifted?
Yes I can understand the decision of the NFF which is in force and if they decide to bring him back after the expiration of his suspension I have no choice but to accept it. But personally I’ve had good relationship with Salisu but he has been caught in the trap and he was a bit naive and he is paying for the mistake(s). But in life anybody can make mistake and if the tide changes its okay by me but it’s the decision of the officials that is important.
How true is it that you lost your wallet and phones at the Stadium during the AIETO Cup final match in Asaba recently?
Oh, before the Asaba episode, I lost my wallet and phone at Agege stadium. A lot of people and I’m in the crowd I lost it and again at the cup final, my wallet disappeared again (laugh) but I’m getting used to the syndrome, I hold my pocket well when next I’m in such situation.
As the coach of team what was the missing link that after the tie against Algeria in the last World Cup qualifying match FIFA annulled the 1-1 scoreline and awards the match to Algeria because we fielded an ineligible player. How do we guide against this as we move on?
Yes NFF has to learn more administratively because a mail was sent in that regard but somebody failed to do his work. But on our part (team) I was not in-charge in the qualifying match against Swaziland before the group stage and it was unfortunate that NFF lost track on the record before I came in. It would have been disastrous if the outcome of the match have reflected on our position leading to possible elimination. I know that the NFF have learnt a lot from the lapses and it won’t happen again.
Going into the AFCON 2019, do you think Nigeria can win the tournament or what is your target and which team did you dread most not to come against?
It is the dream of every team at the competition to win the title, but it will not make much of a sense to make a promise because other teams are also in the tournament to win.
We have good chances to get to the semi-final at the 2019 AFCON,but we can’t be sure to win, it’s a young team, we should be realistic but once we reach the semi-final then winning the title is no longer far from us. I am that Zambia did not qualify for the tournament because they are one of the strongest team in the continent. I also wish I don’t get to meet Cameroon until may be the final match.
Finally at the heat of the crisis in Nigeria football what was running in your mind or what was your experience like?
Honestly, it was the ugly side of my stay so far in the country. After the World Cup I was supposed to submit my report and at the same time draw the plan for the next competition(s) but the episodes of seige at the Glasshouse today and secretariat retaken the next day was was not a pleasant moments for me. I got worse when FIFA ban was looming and at a time I got assurance from NFF boss that the matter would soon be resolved and it was good that my worst fear did not come to past.