GERNOT ROHR: Super Eagles can be champions in Egypt

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Coach Gernot Rohr shares his thoughts on a wide range of issues about the Super Eagles just before his departure for the Total Africa Cup of Nations Egypt 2019 in an exclusive conversation with MORAKINYO ABODUNRIN.

Almost three years in the saddle with Super Eagles, Coach Gernot Rohr has painstakingly reviewed his tenure even as the self-styled Franco German admitted his wards must pull their socks to emerge victorious at the 2019 Total Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Egypt.

Rohr’s arrival coincided with some positive developments within the Nigerian football setup as the Super Eagles against all odds qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia in a seemingly tough qualifying section that housed the dreaded African champions, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, Les Fennecs (The Foxes) of Algeria and Chipolopolo (The Copper Bullets) of Zambia.

He equally qualified the Super Eagles for the AFCON for the first time since 2013 after the three-time African champions Nigeria hitherto failed to make the 2015 and 2017 editions.

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His scorecard is equally something to write home about after he won 14 out of the total 29 matches played since his arrival in 2016 with another eight drawn matches and seven losses on the last count prior to today’s final AFCON preparatory match against Senegal in Ismailia.

“I think one of the most difficult decisions for me so far is dropping two players before the World Cup in Russia,” Rohr, who began his reign as Super Eagles’ coach with a 1-0 win over Tanzania in a dead rubber 2017 AFCON qualifier in Uyo on 2nd September 2016, stated in an exclusive interview with The Nation.“ Again, dropping two players from the provisional list of 25 for this 2019 AFCON in Egypt was also difficult because everybody thinks they deserve to be there.

“It is also difficult sometimes to tell a player that he’s not going to start a game because even with 23players in camp, you only have spaces for 11 players at a time; but that is the job, we have to do our job well.”

Yet Rohr is not amused that in a soccer-mad country such as Nigeria, every Dick and Harry seems to have an opinion about the coaching: “You know better than me the difference between the coach and the fans on the streets,” noted Rohr with wry smiles.

“Of course, they (the fans) can be critics but I have responsibility as coach.

“It is easy to talk but coaching is more than that; because you have a greater responsibility and you are inside while the fans are outside, and they don’t know sometimes what I know about my team.

“But it’s my responsibility as a coach to respect our fans because they are wonderful fans; they want the best for us. We have really had wonderful support of the fans in Uyo and even Asaba. I regret that we have not been able to see the Lagos and Abuja fans while we play our matches.

“I think it’s still not normal that we have not been able to play in two biggest Nigerian cities (Lagos and Abuja) since I’m here; it’s something I don’t understand.

“We need the coordination and cooperation between the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) and the politics (government) which has not been too good. You remember the last episode of dealing with another NFF president when there is already a president, but it’s not funny to me.

“Everybody may have forgotten about it but it was difficult to work for some few months because who was our president after the World Cup? I saw some of the things I never saw in my life before and that is why I think we would always need the direct harmony between the NFF and the government in order for us to succeed.”

Rohr was not shy about speaking about his employers as he described the NFF as partners in progress. “The relation with NFF is okay and it was very wonderful at the beginning; it was like a new marriage with a lot of moonlight. But I tell you that it has been good working with the players and the staff.

“But even when there is problem, we have to understand that you cannot enjoy the honeymoon every time as if you just got married. What I always demand is respect for our job and I would also give my respect because it’s not a one-man show.”

On a personal level though, Rohr has a vast experience both as a player and coach since he featured for top European sides like Bayern Munich and Girondins Bordeaux in France before he retired into coaching.

As a manager, he earned his stripes in European football when he led Bordeaux as runners up to Bayern Munich in thefinal of the now rested UEFA Cup (now known as Europa Cup) in 1996.

After Bordeaux, he was briefly sports director at Eintracht Frankfurt while he has also coached at FC Nantes; Étoile Sportive du Sahel of Tunisia and served as national team head coach of Gabon, Niger and Burkina Faso before berthing in Nigeria in September 2016. But Rohr has singled out legendary coach Aime Jacquet who led France to FIFA World Cup glory on home in 1998 as the man after his heart.

“I’m old in the business of coaching but I’m still young and fresh in my heart,” explained Rohr who will mark his 66th anniversary on 28th June. I have my experience now, but I learned so much from all the coaches I knew, especially Aime Jacquet.

“He (Aime Jacquet) was my coach for 10 years in Bordeaux and in this team in Bordeaux we were three times French Ligue 1 champions and two-time French Coupe winners; twice semi-finalists in the European Cups and later some players were world champions with France.

“In this team of Jacquet in Bordeaux are lots of former players that have now become coaches because he gave us good inspiration.

“I was also lucky because I grew up in the football milieu since my father was a coach too and that was also a good motivation for me.”

At the forthcoming AFCON, the Super Eagles begin their campaign against Burundi on 22nd June to be followed with the game against Guinea on 26th June, while on 30th June Rohr will lead out his troops against his wife’s native Madagascar who are making their first appearance just like Burundi at Egypt 2019.

“On 30th June, my wife will be rooting for Nigeria and she will be wearing the Super Eagles’ jersey, if not, I’m going to sack her!” notes Rohr with a roaring laughter even as he speaks candidly on other sundry details. Excerpts…

Dealing with general pressure as a coach

Sincerely, I don’t feel the pressure as a coach because this is my job. I started on this journey a long time ago and I have all kind of experiences both as a player and coach, so I’m used to the pressure. If you want to do well, you just have to give your best and that has been my style. Once I have done my best, it’s okay and it’s the same thing I tell the players too: ‘do your best.’ I don’t criticise a player if I know what he has done is his best, I don’t criticise at all. The same way with the coaches and the longer you are in a place the more things can become difficult because everybody wants you to achieve more. I have come a long way since I came about three years ago now. At one point we were number 76 in the world and now we are forty-something, which is not bad but it’s our desire to go higher. But I can quit if I no longer have the condition to succeed. The conditions to succeed are not too much but we must have good atmosphere around the team always. We must have good conditions for the coaches in order to work well with the players. I really love this group of players I’m working with because we have good understanding and tolerance amongst ourselves. The love for the work and the country is so big.

Under pressure to win in Egypt

We are not under any pressure going to Egypt because we have been away since 2013; we didn’t go in 2015 and 2017 and so how we can be under pressure when we have missed the last two tournaments (general laughter)? We are going to Egypt to do our best because it was success to have been able to qualify for the tournament, but now we must do more in Egypt. There has been good progress after the World Cup in Russia and you know we had a tough AFCON qualifying group with Libya and South Africa; so to qualify is already a success for our team. But we go to Egypt with a lot of possibilities and we need to be very fit to be able to play the maximum seven matches at the AFCON. We need to work really hard to be able to win something at the AFCON; and like we have a good atmosphere and team spirit which is very important if we are going to succeed. As you know, we have good young boys in this team now and with the experience we had in Russia, it is perfect for us.

Final camping for the 2019 AFCON

We are now in the last stages of our camping for the AFCON in Egypt; and now we are more concerned about the physical and mental conditions of our players. Of course, we are still scouting for information about our opponents because we have not played Guinea, Burundi and Madagascar recently. Our scouting team had the chance of seeing Madagascar in their recent friendly matches in Luxembourg and Paris; and so our operation is focussed on our team as well as our opponents with just few days to the AFCON in Egypt.

Relatively easy Group B for Eagles

I don’t agree that we are in an easy group for the AFCON. What looks like an easy group can be the most difficult because you can’t predict what Burundi, Madagascar and Guinea can do. In a big tournament like this, the first match is very important and we are focusing our attention first on the game against Burundi, which is very, very important for us. I have seen the match between Gabon and Burundi and even with Pierre Aubameyang, Gabon didn’t beat Burundi twice and that shows that they are a very difficult team to beat. Even Mali didn’t beat Burundi twice while Burundi beat South Sudan twice; so we know all these about Burundi. We don’t have to underrate anybody though Burundi and Madagascar are newcomers to the AFCON. But it would be difficult if we think it would be very easy for us to play against these two teams.

Super Eagles talisman for AFCON

We have nobody as the magic man or talisman because we are a team. For us the star is the team and that is the edge we have over all these other teams because we have good team spirit. We have good strikers and wingers. We have good defenders and midfielders but we don’t have Mohammed Salah like Egypt or Sadio Mane like Senegal; or we don’t have Jay Jay Okocha or Kanu but I tell you, we are okay. But what we have is a team and we don’t have to worry too much that we don’t have a particular player in our team. It’s good to have abundance of good players in the team and the sleepless night is usually when I want to drop players from the team before a major competition. It’s always a bad moment for me to tell players that they can’t be part of the group to a competition and even for a particular match. It is always a difficult thing to do but we must do it because it’s is our job.

Super Eagles goalkeeping crisis

We are not joking with the goalkeeping department and that is why we have two goalkeepers’ trainers in our staff and in fact, my assistant Enrico Pionetti worked with Uzoho at his club in Cyprus because he did not particularly play too many matches this season. A goalkeeper like the player can easily lose his confidence if he’s not playing regularly but we have to do our best to push them to give good performance at the AFCON. It is no longer a case of number one, two or three. I tell you, the Super Eagles’ number one position is open now because Ezenwa has been playing regularly for his club locally and doing well too and Akpeyi is playing now and then with Kaizer Chiefs in South Africa. Frankly, Uzoho has lost the number one position and he will have to fight for that position with Ezenwa and Akpeyi in the coming days because everybody is now at the zero level going into the AFCON in Egypt.

Solidarity is my watchword

I know that no team can go far at the AFCON or any tournament without solidarity; it is an indispensable condition to have a good team. There is no way you won’t have one or two problems in a team but with solidarity, you can come together as a family to help. So in this team, the first thing for me is solidarity; the second one is good fighting spirit and the number three thing for me is discipline to respect our jobs and tactical organisation. Of course, solidarity to work together because it’s not a one-man show and if we can pull these together, the team can always make a big difference.

Between Junior Lokosa and Michael Babatunde

I did not call Junior Lokosa and Michael Babatunde despite the fact that they played in the CAF Champions League final for their respective clubs because I know we have better players presently. Lokosa was with us before the World Cup in Russia and he even made one match against Congo. I saw Michael in Enugu with Wydad but, generally, we have so many good Nigerian players all over the world now but I know we have the better ones with us now in the Super Eagles. We have so many offensive players now and one of my duties as the coach is to look at everybody and pick the better ones. We have so much congruence in the offensive position now. Look at Paul (Onuachu), he has presence like Simy (Simeon Nwankwo) that we took to the World Cup in Russia. I would have loved to see Simy again but at some point he was not doing well with his club in the second division in Italy and that was why I called Paul; now he’s giving us options in the offensive department too. We have (Samuel) Chukwueze too and I think it’s good he’s with us in the Super Eagles because I spoke with him and his club when he was invited for the U-20 team. (Victor) Osimhen too. These are a very good group to work with; our team is still under construction and we just have to work very hard to do well at the AFCON in Egypt.

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