Before Gernot Rohr was appointed head coach of Nigeria, the team were at a low ebb, having failed to qualify for either the 2015 or 2017 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Indeed, many were questioning their ability to make it to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, especially after they were drawn in an extremely tough group alongside Algeria, Zambia and Cameroon. Despite these difficulties, Rohr rejuvenated the squad by calling up top European-based players such as Kelechi Iheanacho, Wilfred Ndidi and Alex Iwobi. These talented youngsters helped the Super Eagles reach the World Cup unbeaten and to impress at Russia 2018, where they only missed out on the knockout phase after narrowly losing their final group game to Argentina. In conversation with FIFA.com, Rohr spoke about his coaching career in Africa, his ambitions to reach Qatar 2022 with Nigeria, and his desire to lead the Super Eagles to the quarter-finals for the first time.
You’re one of the few German coaches to have worked and succeeded in Africa. Why is that?
I always try to work in an effective and respectful manner, particularly adapting to the African mentality.
You’ve coached in five different African countries, namely: Tunisia, Gabon, Niger, Burkina Faso and now Nigeria. What are the unique characteristics of each country?
I started my African journey in Tunisia at Etoile du Sahel. This was my first experience in Africa before switching to national teams. In Tunisia, I witnessed first-hand the high standard of organisation and sports facilities, given that the club has won the African Champions League. It was a good experience for me. After that, I had my first taste of coaching a national team with Gabon where I learned a lot and had wonderful memories. We developed so much in that period, thanks to the former Minister of Youth and Sports, who made our task easier because he knew football well. We reached the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012, when we made the knockout stage before losing to Mali in a penalty shootout.
You were then appointed head coach of Niger?
In Niger, they wanted to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations, and we were able to do just that after we beat Guinea. We put in good performances at the 2013 finals in South Africa, a very hot country where we saw temperatures hit 47 degrees. Despite playing on very hard pitches, the players showed great determination and solidarity. I have fond memories of my time in Niger. As for Burkina Faso, we went through a difficult time in 2015 when politics took a heavy toll on sports, so I decided to leave after just one year.
Then you moved to Nigeria after they had failed to make the 2017 AFCON. How did you rise to the challenge there?
Nigeria is different from its predecessors in terms of culture and language. There are 200 million people living there. After they failed to make the Cup of Nations, they needed to rebuild the squad, so I decided to call up relatively unknown young players who had just turned 18, such as Iheanacho and Iwobi. My assistant and I were able to create harmony and balance in a squad spearheaded by our captain [John] Obi Mikel.
Despite the squad’s youth, you led Nigeria to Russia 2018 after winning a difficult group that included 2013 AFCON champions Zambia, 2017 winners Cameroon, and 2019 champions Algeria?
We had a great first game in Zambia, which gave us a fantastic start. We fielded a young squad that included Iheanacho and Ndidi in addition to Iwobi, who scored. We were 2-0 up by the end of the first half. We had a wonderful goalkeeper in Carl Ikeme, who had a great game, but unfortunately his career was cut short due to illness. We then beat Algeria on home soil, which moved us to six points, whereas our opponents had just the one. We continued our successful run by beating Cameron 4-0 and defeating Zambia to finish the qualifiers unbeaten, before we forfeited our game against Algeria (Nigeria fielded an ineligible player) despite the actual game ending in a 1-1 draw.
Nigeria performed well at Russia 2018. Did you feel that your team deserved to qualify for the knockout stage?
Yes, we deserved to qualify. We played very well particularly against Iceland, and we had a goalkeeper who was only 18. Against Argentina, we needed a few more minutes to hit back [after their late goal], and small details made the difference in the end. We almost got a second penalty, but VAR denied it. What we did in Russia was very encouraging nonetheless.
After that, Victor Moses, Obi Mikel and Odion Ighalo announced their retirement from international football. How did you feel about their decisions?
We were sorry Moses retired. The same applies to Obi Mikel and Ighalo, because they’re fantastic players. They decided to retire for family reasons or to play in China and focus on their club careers, and we respected their decisions.
We’re just a few months away from the start of the second round the African qualifiers for Qatar 2022. What do you think of your group and opponents?
We have three opponents in the group and have to respect all of them. Liberia are a team that can’t be underestimated as we saw when we beat them in a friendly. As for Cape Verde, they have players of Portuguese and Brazilian origin, and they can beat any team. Central African Republic are an unknown quantity for us, which makes it more difficult. I think the group is tough, but we believe in our capabilities. Given that we qualified from the group of death for Russia 2018, we’re confident we can make it this time as well.
Are there teams you want to avoid in the final qualifying round, such as Algeria and Senegal?
There will be fierce competition regardless, but when we play without fans we’ll miss the excitement. I hope fans can attend games next year as this will make the matches more enjoyable.
After that prolonged Covid-enforced hiatus, are you in contact with the players, and do you have an idea of how to prepare for the upcoming period?
We’re in constant communication with the players, the technical staff, the trainers, the video analyst, and all the coaching staff. Every week we see the players and travel sometimes to meet them as well. Recently, I visited [Kevin] Akpoguma, who plays for Hoffenheim. He made the decision to play for Nigeria after representing Germany at youth level. I also keep in touch with Nigerian football officials, with whom I successfully negotiated a contract extension until Qatar 2022, on the condition that we qualify. It’s definitely been a unique period.
If you make Qatar 2022, will taking Nigeria to the quarter-finals for the first time be your main goal, especially with this new generation of players?
We’ll take it one step at a time. First we need to qualify, and if we do that, we’ll look at our group at the finals. We’ll try to progress to the knockout stage, which we got very close to two years ago. We have to work hard to achieve that.
As a long-time coach in Africa, which national teams do you think are favourite to qualify for Qatar 2022?
You’ll get the answer if you look at FIFA Ranking. I think the top five teams in the Ranking will make it.
Finally, what message do you want to send in these pandemic times?
I hope all the players and fans stay healthy and safe. I also hope life will go back to normal so that fans can travel and attend matches, which will in turn bring football back to life.