By Jacob Ajom
I couldnâ€™t resist the call to come for this reunion with the sporting press inÂ Lagos. I had to struggle between accepting it or not. Finally, I decided to come and socialise with my friends and â€˜enemiesâ€™(laughter). I believe the aspects that we will be talking on is the list of 32 players invited to camp, the programme for the national team and our Nations Cup campaign.
What concerns me now is the African Cup of Nations in Angola. This is because, Angola will be the pointer to what we will be capable of doing at the World Cup in South Africa. Angola will be the parameter to know the make of the team at the World Cup. The other issue that has dominated the press of late is that of home-based players.
Invitation of players to camp
I invited 32 playersÂ to camp, only three of them are from the local league. I would have extended the invitation to more players but because we donâ€™t have the luxury of time. It would haveÂ been difficult for me to invite more home-based players because the time is too short to bring out the best in them. Left for me, I would have limited the number of invited players to 22 or 25, but issues like injuries, late release of players by clubs, the fitness level of some of the invited players and all that, I had to agree to an extended list of 32. It is not an easy job for any coach to supervise 32 players in one week.
Choice of Durban for training camp
We will be leaving Abuja on 30th December for Durban, South Africa. Durban came up as plan B. After the Nations Cup draw in South Africa we went to Namibia. Our plan A was to camp in Namibia because we thought the best place to prepare the team was there, but after inspection, the place available needed certain things to be put in place.
The pitch was artificial turf which is different from the one at competition venue in Angola. We then went and checked the facilities in Durban, the weather condition and the pitch there were like what we expect in Angola. We wanted to give the players the best. That was how we arrived at the decision to camp in Durban. We will be flying to Angola from Durban straight for the Nations Cup
Calls for support
I am sure we are going to have a good competition if we all support the team.
The way you report the national team can affect the psyche of the players and even me. The Nigerian team needs a strong mentality to take on all opposition. We have a team that is gradually evolving. That is a team that does not lose matches even when we are under pressure. Something must be good about that team. We must encourage them. When we support them, they will go to Angola and will be psychologically prepared for the World Cup.
Physical trainer for the team
Sometimes I donâ€™t like the way issues, particularly issues relating to football, are handled. The issue of a technical assistant, physiotherapist or whatever you choose to call it, if we were doing things normally, every information on the technical crew should be coming from one source. Sometimes it leaves me more confused when you discuss an issue with your employers, the next thing you start reading it in the press. If I should tell you my frank answer, for now, there is no subtraction or addition to the technical crew that is going to the Nations Cup.
Relationship with the press
My relationship with the press has been lively. I have always appealed to the media that together we will build a strong national team. Bash us if you like, I like constructive criticisms. Let me read an article, I can pick something useful. At times during the heat of the job, some press men would press for interviews or answers to questions I cannot proffer answers immediately. When I decline to talk they would term it as arrogance. I think we must eliminate excesses.
On the question about a media manager for me, I did not know my PR was so bad that I needed a media relations manager. But my employers have told me that Robinson Okosun would be working closely with me.
On home-based players: When I was talking about the 32-man list of invited players, I said I invited three home-based.
I donâ€™t want us to reduce our football to home-based or no home-based. It will be very unfair to players in the domestic league. We tend to paint a picture of discrimination against the home-based players. I know everything about the home league. I have been privileged to work with many players in the local league and those playing abroad. Those who know my history will tell you I did not become the national team coach overnight. I have seen it all in the domestic league.
I cannot sit down here and pretend that all is well with our league. The standard of the league has fallen, you visit match venues and you wonâ€™t find up to five thousand people watching a match, the playing pitches are bad. Problems of owed emoluments, playersâ€™ are owed their bonuses. Every ingredient about good football is missing in the local league.
Players with such a background need psychological rehabilitation. Programme them, monitor them for sometime before introducing them to the big stage. It takes more time to condition such players, itâ€™s not a seven day thing.
When we came on board, we were given a brief – to secure tickets for both the World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations. I donâ€™t want to go beyond my brief. I wrote a brief on the development of the home-based players but I was instructed to focus on the qualifiers while Coach Okey Emordi would handle the home-based.
The way I painted the league was reflected on their non-qualification for the African Nations Championship for home-based national teams. If they had qualified, played some matches, perhaps we would have picked one or two of them before now. The main problem is that there has been no programme for the home-based players.
I have nothing against the home-based. I did not say they were training materials but to be honest with you, I think they have a slim chance of making the final squad. I would be very happy to have them in my team because if they eventually do well, I will take the pride of having discovered a star or stars.
We should not be too emotional about this issue. After the Nations Cup, I will call a home-based camp, play one or two games with them. Letâ€™s see how it goes.
Nations Cup target
If anyone asks me about my Nations Cup target, I will tell the person that I have none. I donâ€™t want to put myself under undue pressure. Some of the boys are still too young to handle pressure. But any coach worth his salt goes into any competition with the intention to win . If a team gets to the semi final or the final of a competition, it would have done well.
When I saw my Nations Cup brief- semi final, then I knew the Nigeria Football Federation knew what they were doing.
But I wonâ€™t go to sleep because NFF had given me a semi final target. If we win the trophy, wonâ€™t it add to my catalogue of achievements?
On entertaining football
IÂ love entertaining football too. Those of you who can remember my days with BCC Lions of Gboko and 3SC of Ibadan can attest to my style – robust, free-flowing football. Remember also the friendly against England at Wembley. They played the best brand of football. The team then had matured under Westerhof. This team is still growing. But I am not going to sacrifice result on the altar of entertaining
football. When the team matures, Nigerians will see the true Eagles.
Pre-Nations Cup friendly games
We intend to have one or two but not with top teams. Many people are talking about Egypt; yes a great team. I respect them and we are not going to underestimate their strength. But am I going to the Nations Cup and think only about
Access to players during camping
The national team is our property. It belongs to all of us. You are guaranteed access in as much as it does not disrupt our programme. But that can be worked out.
Nigerian players and CAF awards
We are still suffering from our absence from Germany 2006 World Cup. If the Eagles had qualified, gone there to showcase their talents and enhance their profile, some of them would have gone to bigger clubs and become more visible. I think we are gradually getting over it. You can see that we are now 22 in FIFA ranking and third in Africa. To better our present position is to put up good performances at the Nations Cup and the World Cup.
A player like Mikel can be pushed to play offensive for the Eagles, notwithstanding what position he plays at Chelsea. I have told him that whenever he leaves London, he should automatically switch his mentality to that of offensive role.
He has shown a lot of potential and we all saw him in Nairobi. Ikechukwu Uche, he is one young man that will shoot his way to the top. Sorry, today he is on crutches. If we can play the way we did in Kenya, then we can achieve anything.
For the first time we saw a team with a mentality to win. We will build on that.
Invitation of five goal keepers
That department is a very special department in a team. We were not too sure of the availability of Vincent Enyeama and Dele Aiyenugba. Both of play in Israel. The Israeli clubs donâ€™t always want to release their players on time because of club engagements.
Austin Ejide is one goalkeeper who got injured before our match with Tunisia but has recovered. He is presently undergoing rehabilitation and out of contract with his club. But that does not mean we should discardÂ him. He has the physique and an intimidating stature. He deserves a place in the team if he is in form. We are giving him a chance to prove he can still make the team.
Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup calendar
It is not helping us in Africa just as it is not helping European coaches. I think CAF has to do something about it.
Age is a matter of numbers. We have a tendency of retiring some of our best players prematurely. During the Christian Chukwu/Odegbami era, we all cried ah, they are tired legs. They left, at the end we went to beg them to return to the national team.
Then came the Olisehs, Finidis, Okochas; so much talk about tired legs. They all left. Today there areÂ cries for Amodu to bring back Okocha to the national team because I donâ€™t have a play maker again.