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We must avoid a repeat of 1994 experience — Okpala

By Jacob Ajom

Former Super Eagles assistant coach, Sylvanus Okpala has said Coach Gernot Rohr and his wards going to Russia 2018 World Cup must have confidence and self belief, if they hope to surpass Nigeria’s previous outings at the mundial.

Sylvanus Okpala

Speaking with Saturday Sports during the week, the former Nigeria international said, “in 1994, we never believed that the World Cup was ours to win. There was no other team better than our squad at USA ’94. But, perhaps, because we were qualifying for the first time, we felt getting to the second round was like mission accomplished. Both the players and the coaches felt the same way.

I was sitting here in my room and when I watched them play, I said, ‘this cup belongs to us’. This did not seem to be the general thinking of the technical crew and the players. And we missed that opportunity.

We are going again. And if you ask me if we have got the team that can go ahead to the second round. I would say yes.

But again, it depends on a lot of factors – the coaches, the players and how they approach it.

The first step is to pick the best players that can give him result.

At this point, Okpala recalled how they went to America to play Venezuela during preparations for the 2014 World Cup. “I saw Shola Ameobi there and I asked Keshi, what he was doing in camp. Keshi said he needed him for his experience. I told Keshi straight that Shola could not help us. I told him I preferred a younger player who had a future. Although I was no longer there when they eventually went to the World Cup, he took Ameobi to Brazil. Was he useful to the team? Did he give us any value?”

Before the 2013 AFCON, Keshi mentioned a particular player and I kicked against it. He asked why? I said he wasn’t fit. The player in question was a midfielder and as a midfielder, one has to be very quick. If there is a counter attack against us, for instance, he needs to sprint back 15 to 20 metres. You have to do it.

When we are building attack from the rear, he wasn’t always involved or look for the ball to get involved. He was static and unfit. You know I was a midfielder, a utility player because I practically played every wing in my active days. But they misunderstood me.

“My advise to Rohr is that he must not remain rigid with a particular set of players. He should offer equal opportunity to all the players in the squad because some players considered as big names could flop at the tournament. If all the players are given equal playing time during preparatory friendly matches during the tournament, all of them will be match fit and whoever is called upon to play, in event of any eventuality, can hold his own any time.”

Okpala urged coach Rohr to evaluate his players critically and see where best he could achieve good results. “If I were the coach, I won’t look at what they do for their various clubs, particularly the midfielders. I would rather use them in the positions I know would be good for the rest of the team and give us the best result”.

Okpala said players’ fitness should be key consideration for selection and the coaches’ versatility will be a big factor in the Eagles march to glory in Russia.

Said he, “the coaches must have different approaches to different matches. Should they qualify for the next round and they continue to play the same way they did in the first round they will be knocked out easily. They have to change their playing method and restrategise as they progress in the tournament,” Okpala said.

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