The Super Eagles will resume their quest to be at the Cameroun 2019 African Nations Cup when they take on Seychelles in their second match of the qualifying series on September 7. According to the coach of the team, which had a disappointing campaign at the Russia 2018 World Cup, Nigeria is in the process of building a strong team to avoid further disappointments in international championships. Speaking to journalists in Lagos on Friday, Rohr enumerated his plans for the team, including how he wants to make the Super Eagles strong again. CHRISTIAN OKPARA was there.
Nigeria was not among the teams tipped to reach the last stages of the just concluded FIFA World Cup in Russia. Although the Super Eagles were the first African team to qualify for the World Cup, they were deemed too immature and lacking in depth to challenge the likes of Germany, Spain, Argentina, England, France, Belgium and Croatia at the global fiesta.
But after the championship, many pundits saw the Eagles as a team for the future because of the exciting young players in the squad. There was the belief in some quarters that the World Cup came too soon for Gernot Rohr’s team, which with only two months to the competition still had no trusted replacement for goalkeeper, Carl Ikeme, who was forced out of the game by illness.
And so when the team came close to beating Argentina to the second round ticket in their last group game in St. Petersburg, it was generally believed that the Super Eagles had a solid base on which to build a strong team. Even at that, some pundits attributed Nigeria’s failure to make the round of 16 in Russia to hard luck, ‘biased’ officiating and naiveté, which was expected of a team rated as the youngest side in the competition.
And now that all that is over, how ready is the Super Eagles to reach the height predicted by followers of Nigerian football? One of the qualities many believe any side hoping to build a strong team must have is players in big clubs and the biggest club competitions in the world.Apart from Chelsea’s Victor Moses, who has retired from the national team, and Alex Iwobi at Arsenal, no Nigerian player is active in any of the big clubs in the world. Pundits point out that when Nigeria had players in almost all the big European clubs, including AC Milan, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Ajax and Paris St. Germaine, the Super Eagles were rated as the fifth best team in the world. But Rohr is not bothered by the lack of big name players in his squad.
At the weekend in Lagos, Rohr said he has started what he described as the journey to making the Super Eagles a truly great team again.”It is true that we don’t have players in Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool and such other big clubs, but we have young talented players, who will grow into big stars with time. We hope soon they will move to these clubs. We are working for the future and we cannot be the youngest team at the World Cup and still have players in big clubs. It is a gradual process,” he said.
He added that Nigerian players have already started moving up. “Now, we have a player who has moved from Nantes to Porto, another has moved from Perm in Russia to Lokomotiv Moscow. With time more will join bigger clubs,” he said.He revealed that he rejected overtures from many other countries to stick with the Super Eagles because he saw in the squad a future world champion.
Unlike other foreign coaches before him, Rohr who came under scrutiny by victory-mad Nigerians for failing to take the Super Eagles to at least the second round, said, “I decided I want to continue working here in Nigeria. I like the team we have here and the NFF has made the environment very conducive for me, so I don’t see any reason why I should leave now.
“I hope this team will be better in future and it is important to continue the good work we started.”Rohr’s first major task is to qualify Nigeria for the Cameroun 2019 African Nations Cup from a group where the Super Eagles are currently placed third.The Super Eagles lost their first match at home to South Africa and must beat Seychelles next month away from home to resuscitate their hope of being in Cameroun. The Nations Cup is a competition in which Nigeria has failed to qualify for back-to-back editions and some pundits believe that the country should not only aspire to qualify for the competition, but should also aim at winning it. They believe he has the materials to achieve both targets.
During the unveiling of the squad for the qualifier against Seychelles at the weekend, Rohr gave a brief insight into the state of his squad, saying that he, alongside the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), was working to ensure that the best available legs were ready for the tasks ahead.He said, “We tried to help some of our players find new clubs after the World Cup. We could not come back to Nigeria immediately because we have been working on programmes aimed at giving us a good team.
“Some people have criticised our performance in Russia, but I must say that I am proud of our team. Neutral analysts have commended our performance and predicted that we will do well in future competitions because of the average age of the players.”One of the routes Rohr has taken in building his new team is by exposing as many players as possible to international football through friendly matches.He revealed, “We want to play against Saudi Arabia on September 11 to try new players and also see some of the old players who are still relevant to our aspirations.
“Most of our players are changing clubs and we want to help them to settle down in their new environments.”Recently, we discussed with Charleroi of Belgium about Victor Osimhen and they have taken him on loan. We want all our players to be active in their clubs because that is the only way they will be match fit when we need them. We spend only three or four days with the players on average, which doesn’t give us the time to work on fitness and psychology, so we want the players to be active in their clubs.
“We are happy that Francis Uzoho has a new club in Elche of Spain and we hope playing regularly will help his reflexes.” Rohr regrets the crisis in Nigerian football that caused the league to be shut down for more than six weeks, saying it has denied him the opportunity to see the home-based players.Goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa is the only home-based player in the national team because he was in the squad to the World Cup and also his club, Enyimba have been active in the CAF Confederation Cup.
“The league’s suspension is not good for the U-23 team and the CHAN squad, which are supposed to be preparing for their qualifiers. We hope the league will resume soon, but we have also spread our net to other countries.”He revealed that former Super Eagles number one goalkeeper, Carl Ikeme has started working for the team in Europe and will join the squad after the game against Seychelles.
“Ikeme is working on some young goalkeepers in England. He has identified one, who has all the qualities we need in a goalkeeper. “We are also looking at a young goalkeeper known as Sebastian in the Switzerland second division. For the game against Seychelles we have invited some young stars, Jamiu Collins, who plays in the German Bundesliga 2, and Semiu Ajayi of Rotterdam in the English Championship,” Rohr said.
With the rebuilding currently on-going in the Eagles, some of the older players may have played their last games for Nigeria. According to Rohr, some, like Odion Ighalo and Ogenyi Onazi are currently on the last chance salon and may not get another opportunity if they failed to prove in the next two games that they are still relevant in the team.
“I want to give Odion Ighalo the opportunity to prove that he can still score for Nigeria. After a bad World Cup, people expected me to drop him from the team, but since he is still active I want to see if he can do the job for us.”There are so many young strikers waiting in the wings, including Simi, who did not get enough chance to prove his worth in Russia.
“There are also Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Henry Onyekuru, who is on loan at Galatasaray. Onyekuru can play from the middle or from the wings. He can dribble and possesses amazing speed. “There is also Samuel Kalu, a young striker playing for Bordeaux, who under Thierry Henry will learn how to use his speed and dribbles to maximum effect.”