By Osasu Obayiuwana
When the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) appointed Gernot Rohr, the former Bayern Munich and Bordeaux defender, as the new manager of the Super Eagles, I was less than enamoured with the appointment.
With stints in Niger, Burkina Faso and Gabon forming the bulk of the German’s national team management experience, I wondered how that qualified him to take on the biggest job in African football and certainly one of the most difficult in the world.
That the 63-year-old took over the national team after the NFF made a dog’s breakfast of recruiting Paul Le Guen, Cameroon’s manager at the 2010 World Cup, did not help matters either.
Anyone aware of my position on the current NFF leadership, led by Amaju Pinnick, will be acutely aware that I have been a trenchant critic of the sharp nosedive that Nigerian football has taken, since he and his executive committee members took over the administrative reins in 2014.
But a conversation with Hardy Hasselbruch, an old friend in Nuremburg and professional colleague at Kicker, Germany’s top football magazine – which I occasionally write for – opened the door to my change of mind, on Gernot’s suitability for the job.
“As a coach, he has sound knowledge of the game and has a strong personality. But what is even more important, Gernot is a very decent human being,” Hardy told me.
“I am quite surprised that he has taken on the Nigeria job, knowing that many coaches before him worked without being paid their salary,” he laughed.
“If he is allowed to do his job, in the way that I know he can do it, he will be successful in Nigeria.”
Another person with knowledge of Rohr, owing to the German’s playing and coaching experience with Bordeaux, is my Paris-based friend, Frank Simon of France Football, whose expertise on African football – and the game in general – I respect greatly.
“As a coach, he was a good call for many clubs. He is not a bigmouth and a very humble person.”
Hardy put me in touch with Gernot before he signed a deal with the NFF, leading to a subsequent exchange of messages, until we finally had a one-on-one conversation at the Abuja National Stadium on Wednesday, 5th October, for the BBC World Service, a few days before Nigeria’s World Cup qualifier in Zambia.
It left me impressed for several reasons.
First, Gernot is as eager to go to the 2018 World Cup as Nigeria. Despite being a well-respected defender in Europe, during his 17-year playing career, Gernot never made it to the game’s premier tournament.
“Going to the World Cup is why I accepted this very exciting challenge with Nigeria,” he told me. “I would like my team to play against Germany.
“I have already coached at the Nations Cup with two countries and I’ve also had the chance [at Bordeaux] to coach Zinedine Zidane, one of the biggest players in the world.
“And I played with Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller [whilst he was at Bayern]. I am missing that feeling and I thought that by coming here, I could get it back.
“The passion for football is very big here. Nigeria is a big football country. It is an honour for me to coach this team.
“We have to work at the top level, all the time… The players must be conscientious about their responsibility, to be here for the country. It is a bigger responsibility than when they are at their clubs, because they are representing 180 million people.”
Another revelation that left a positive impression is the fact he claims money is a “secondary thing” to him.
“I am here to coach a team. The salary is secondary,” Rohr insists.
“I was, for 17 years, a professional player with Bayern Munich and Bordeaux. Money is not my problem. Even if the salary is not coming immediately, I am not hungry. I can eat.”
That attitude could come in handy, especially with an employer known for its abysmal record in not promptly paying wages to its employees, as Samson Siasia can readily attest to.
An insistence that his Nigerian assistants – Salisu Yusuf and goalkeeper trainer, Alloy Agu – be given improved contracts, also attests to his decency and that he understands a harmonious team environment is required to achieve World Cup qualification.
But it is having the backbone to be unbending, when it comes to enforcing the professional management of the Super Eagles’ World Cup campaign – a huge problem in the past – that will be critical for Gernot.
He will have to be extremely firm, uncompromising even, to ensure the high standards he is demanding are met during a lengthy qualifying campaign.
Clemens Westerhof, Nigeria’s most successful foreign manager, once told me that to succeed with the Super Eagles, he had to have “the skin of an elephant” on his back.
Gernot will certainly need to borrow a leaf – or a tough hide, rather – from Clemens, if he is to accomplish his mission.
I hope Gernot has a successful sojourn with us. The alternative for Nigeria – not qualifying for Russia and missing out on international tournament football for six successive years – is a prospect too frightening to contemplate.
For more of my reports and feature pieces, go to FootballIsAfrica.com