MY FIRST DAY at work in 2017 featured an interesting encounter with Super Eagles manager Gernot Rorh. During a very relaxing conversation at the historic Onikan Stadium in Lagos, Rorh told me and former Soccer Star editor Kunle Solaja that winning a 2018 FIFA World Cup ticket for Nigeria will be the greatest achievement of his coaching career. Here is an excerpt from the lengthy conversation......
Mumini Alao: Hello, Gernot. It's nice meeting you for the first time. How are you?
Gernot Rohr: I'm very well, thank you. Toyin has spoken a lot about you and your articles in Complete Sports newspaper. I'm very pleased to meet you, too. (Toyin Ibitoye is media officer of the Super Eagles).
Alao: Yeah, Toyin said to me you would be around in Lagos and he would like me to meet you so we could have a conversation which is great.
Rorh: Yes, yes. Before now I didn't want to talk too much because I was new and I needed to understand my new environment. Now, I think I'm settling down.
Alao: That is true because you have played three games (as Eagles coach) and won them all. That is a great way to start on a new job. Congratulations.
Rorh: You're right, thank you. The results in 2016 were very good and have helped me to settle quickly.
Alao: Fantastic. But you know, this year (2017) is going to be even more important. Of course, you're aware that all the Nigerian teams did not qualify for major tournaments to be played this year. The U-17, the U-20 as well as the Super Eagles didn’t make it to their respective African tournaments while there are no female competitions and no Olympics games. The only major event 170 million Nigerian football fans are looking forward to this year is the Russia 2018 World Cup qualifiers and all eyes are on you to deliver the ticket. Does that make you feel any pressure?
Rohr: No, because it is a job. And when you are handling a team, be it a club or a country, it’s always the same; you want to win. So, there is no pressure because I have the experience, I have good feelings and I have a very good team. This is the best team I have ever trained (offensively) asides FC Bordeaux in 1996. I don’t feel any pressure because I know we can score goals at any moment. We are very strong on the offensive with players like Victor Moses, Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi and others. The players have accepted my philosophy, we have a good discipline and a collective respect for each other. So, I feel the players really want to give their best for Nigeria as a nation. That is good for me to achieve my objective of getting the World Cup ticket.
Alao: You have been in Africa for some time. You coached Etoile du Sahel in Tunisia, you were in Niger Republic and later, Burkina Faso as national coach. What was your impression about Nigerian football and Nigerian players before you came to Nigeria?
Rohr: I was in Niger Republic, and Nigeria is close to Niger Republic. There are many Nigerian players plying their trade in Niger Republic. And also during my career, I worked with Nigerian players like Victor Agali when I was a coach of OGC Nice in 2004. So, I have a very good image of the Nigerian players. They are respectful and very strong physically; Mikel Obi is a typical example and the confirmation of the image I had of Nigerian players. They're very strong and very talented.
Alao: You earlier talked about the offensive nature of your team. Does that mean you do realize that you still have a lot of work to on the midfield and the defense?
Rohr: There is always a lot of work to do. Even if you have a big team, you cannot say they are already on top or that everything is perfect. When I watched the last game (against Algeria in a World Cup qualifier), I saw that we had a lot of chances to score but there were problems at the back. So, we must be stronger all together everywhere on the pitch. It's not the question of one department or one defender alone. But, yes, we have a bit more work to do on the defense.
Alao: If you recall in one of my articles in Complete Sports, I was trying to point out that sub-Saharan African players seem to have problems of concentration in defense which makes it easy for the North Africans and the Europeans to capitalize and punish them. What is your take on that?
Rohr: Oh yes, I remember that you talked about that in your article when I just arrived. You also wrote about how to beat Zambia, Algeria and Cameroun. Yeah, yeah, it was a very good article, Toyin brought it to me and I have kept it here in my telephone. Yes, I think this is where we can improve; I mean the mental aspect of our game plan. Concentration is part of momentum, discipline is part of momentum, respect, tactics and strategy are all part of it. So, everybody in Africa must progress in this mental aspect to close the gap on the Europeans. Yes, I agree with your observation.
Mumin: Which areas in particular do you think you still have more work to do in the Super Eagles defence?
Rohr: When you look at the team, you’ll see that we like to use offensive wing backs. But again, we still to like have defenders with good techniques of defending without faults. We don’t have so many choices at those positions, so we are still searching for players in that department, I mean right full back and left full back. As for the centre back, that is the strong point of our team. Already, you spoke about the mental strengths of the top European teams. I believe that the exposure of Troost Ekong and Leon Balogun to European football very early in their careers helped them a lot. I consider them as the best central defensive partnership in African football today. We also have Kenneth Omeruo as a back-up and he can also play at right back. But I'm still looking at other options for the wing backs. Before the qualifiers resume, we would find the solutions to improve.
Alao: As the national coach of Nigeria, how are you passing that message of developing the mental capacity of players from a young age across to the Nigeria Football Federation?
Rohr: They (the NFF) must work with the young ones where they have coaches who can teach basic formations at football academies with the same objective as us at the senior level. With this, the players will be able to have a good concentration and be strong mentally coupled with acquiring basic education. I think in each academy, there must be a message from the federation on how to coach these young talents.
Alao: Would you want to make a recommendation on developing
a technical curriculum that will give the coaches an insight into what to teach the players at the academy level?
Rohr: In Europe, there are people who specialize on the mental subject in football. But I think in Nigeria, it is the work of the coach, it is the work of the academies and also the technical committee of the federation. They must try to teach the young players to be concentrated; to respect the playing philosophy and have the tactical discipline from a young age. This is very important
Alao: Let's return to the Super Eagles. What kind of philosophy have you adopted having studied the team? Which formation do you think can bring out the best performance from the team?
Rohr: You’ve seen the three games we played against Tanzania, Zambia and Algeria and you could see how we progressed in each game. We had a 4-3-3 formation; later we had 4-2-3-1 and later another formation in 4-1-4-1; we don’t have any problem playing any of these formations. In fact, we can play several formations within a single game depending on the opponent and our situation. Our players have high technical and tactical qualities.
Alao: How did you approach the Algeria game in particular because the Algerians were the number one team in Africa, they have several top players and most Nigerian fans were afraid you would not be able to cope with them…
Rohr: No, we were not afraid of them because I had always won against them. I won against them while in Niger Republic, so there was no doubt we could beat them because Nigeria have better players than Niger Republic. Also, I had the clip of their (Algeria's) first game against Cameroun and I saw that they were very slow at the back. We were confident we would beat them.
Alao: Before that game, I wrote about Oghenekaro Etebo in my column and pleaded that he should be called up for the game to play in attacking midfield. Other people made similar calls. You responded to our calls but instead of attacking midfield, you put him in defensive midfield and pushed Mikel Obi upfront. What did you see that made you swap them?
Rohr: In the week of the match, we had a good training in Uyo and Etebo showed what he is capable of doing. He is very strong and he can play box-to-box, back and forth without getting tired. And when he goes forward, Ogenyi Onazi has the awareness to cover for him. Mikel on the other hand was not playing at Chelsea and it would be a risk to play him at number 6 so we pushed him forward. The plan worked perfectly for the game.
Alao: There are four more games to play in the World Cup qualifiers and the next two at home and away against Cameroun are very important. You will be going to the 2017 African Cup of Nations in Gabon as a television pundit. What are you going to be looking out for especially considering the fact that Cameroun have always proved to be a hard nut to crack for Nigeria in the history of African football?
Rohr: We are used to (hearing about) traditions. It was the same before we went to Zambia (that Nigeria had never won there) and now, the moment has come and we have to change it. We want to stop that (domination by Cameroun). We need to beat them at home first because this game is the most important game. If we beat them here in Nigeria, it’ll be very difficult for them to come back. The victory will give us nine points while they (Cameroun) will be on two points. I watched their game against Zambia, there is a lot of pressure on them. We have the confidence that we can beat them.
Alao: Let me take you back to the team. There was a time you were bent on bringing goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama back into the team. Are you still talking to him about making a come-back?
Rohr: In the beginning, I was looking for him because I knew him to be a very good goalkeeper but I didn't know the problem he had with the federation. I called him, I invited him to camp but he didn’t honour the invitation; so we have to move on. In Carl Ikeme, we have a very good number one.
Alao: By the way, Gernot, how did you get to know about the Nigeria job? How were you contacted?
Rohr: I was contacted by Mr. Tunde Adelakun who is based in London. He knew me when I was working in Burkina Faso. I sent him a proposal and he called me, we spoke after which the president (Amaju Pinnick) now called me. I was invited to come to Abuja which I did, I gave them my ideas and motivations. I was warmly received by the technical committee.
Alao: What has been your relationship with the federation’s system and the technical committee?
Rohr: Good relationship. No problem at all. I know some of the people in the technical committee like Victor Ikpeba, Bitrus Bewarang and I like them. I feel at home with them.
Alao: Great. And, what's your opinion of the Nigerian football fans?
Rohr: They are very respectful. Even the players, they are more respectful than the Francophone players.
Alao: Tell us about your family?
Rohr: I have two children from my Madagascan wife.
(At this stage, Mr. Kunle Solaja, former editor of Soccer Star, arrives to join the conversation)
Solaja: Coach, here in Nigeria, we feel that it will be very easy for you to monitor the home-based players and scout some talents for the national team. But it appears you prefer staying in France to monitor the players.
Rohr: It is not by preference or pride. It’s just that I have to be very close to the players. It is my priority to know all my players and watch their game. And because the majority of our top players are in Europe, then I have to spend more time in Europe. It is not possible for me to stay here and talk to them on telephone. I prefer to have personal contact with them. I have my assistants who will monitor the local players. But also, I have a house in Abuja where I stay now when I'm in Nigeria. I have lived in Africa for many years and my wife is from Madagascar, so I have no problem living in Nigeria. But I have to be in Europe more regularly to see my players.
Solaja: Have you had any chance to watch some matches in the Nigerian league?
Rohr: I watched the Federations Cup final in Lagos. I also watched a few other games and Imama (Amapakabo, one of his assistants) showed me some players. They have good qualities but they need to develop more to play at a high level.
Alao: Nigeria have always had issues with payment of coaches even before this current administration of Amaju Pinnick. The last German like you to work here was Berti Vogts and he had to report Nigeria to FIFA before he could get his money. I believe you must have heard of that.
Rohr: I hope I don't have to go to FIFA before I can collect my salary.......(Explosive laughter all round).....But the truth is that the money problem is everywhere. I hope everybody’s contract is respected; nobody should be taken for granted. So far, everything is OK with my contract.
Solaja: How true is the statement that was credited to you by a FIFA publication that you agree to be fired if you failed to qualify Nigeria for the 2018 World Cup?
Rohr: What I said is that my contract stops automatically if we did not qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. I understand that another coach that was to be hired refused the contract because of this condition. But I have accepted the challenge. I did not say I should be fired.
Solaja: For those of us in the media, we prefer to use words like "fired" or "sacked" because they're more dramatic.
Alao: So, Gernot, how will you react to qualifying the Super Eagles for the FIFA World Cup? What would that mean to you?
Rorh: Whao! That would be the greatest achievement of my coaching career. I'm willing to do everything in my power to achieve it. And I believe with the support of everybody in Nigeria; the federation, the government, the players, the fans and the media, we will achieve this objective.
Alao: Thank you very much for talking to us. We wish you all the best.
Solaja: Good luck, Gernot.
Rohr: Thank you very much, gentlemen.