…Backs Odegbami on next Eagles coach
…Why Eagles fell to Italy at USA ’94
…Recalls how Abacha scuttled his AFCON ambition
…Dissects Gernot Rohr’s Eagles
By Onochie Anibeze and Jacob Ajom
That reminds us of the recent campaign by Chief Segun Odegbami, that they should look at your set and the set immediately after you for the next Super Eagles coach?
Yes, I support the campaign because all this while we have been going to the World Cup with white men, what have we achieved? Is it not better we start with our own people here? If we make a mistake we will try another person. You tell him, hey, see where we got it wrong last time, try and correct it. We want you to take this team to the next level. The person will work together with the NFF. If that person fails we will try another. We will keep trying until we get it right. That is what they do in Europe.
Why are they not running to Africa and say, please come and help us? They cannot do it. They also have players that have played top-class football. Those are the people they are looking for. In Nigeria now, we don’t trust our people. Some of us played for fourteen years in Europe, we played football, we have got all the experiences and now you are telling us, you cannot do this, you cannot do that.
Don’t get me wrong. If you go get a top coach like Pep Guardiola or Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp or whoever in that class to handle the national team everybody will say it’s okay, this guy is worthy. However, if you are bringing an unknown name to come and handle the national team of Nigeria, then it is better we use our indigenous coaches and even where that person fails, we will try somebody else. That is how they do it. If you have a child and he doesn’t do well, are you going to throw the child away?
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No way! He is still going to be your son. So we have to welcome our own, we have to receive them, work with them and see how we can move our football forward. Even if they fail, it is just one tournament. Where do we go from there? We just have to move on. Now we are going into the next Nations Cup tournament, thinking on how we are going to win it? No. They have to think also about ‘what if we don’t win it, what do we do?’
Onochie: Let me tell you the truth from my own side Finidi. After Westerhof, I have not seen any other good foreign coach that we have had. Look at what happened in Russia. The team that Rohr took to Russia, individually were better than the team Keshi took to Brazil and got to the second round. But Rohr didn’t take us to anywhere. So I support Odegbami. The problem, however, remains, do the people in NFF have such vision? Do they articulate, do they have the knowledge to say let’s go home and use our well known ex-players?
Yes. We have so many ex-players. It is not everybody that would go into coaching. If we know the opportunity is there, everybody would sit up. If we know this is what they are trying to do, we will know. For instance, if this is Amokachi’s time, we will all pray for him. If he does not do well, it is up to the NFF to replace him with another person. Even Keshi won the Nations Cup, what happened? They still frustrated him.
He went to the World Cup and got to the second round. Rohr didn’t.
Yeah. These are the things we have to put into consideration, especially, the NFF. Let’s work with our indigenous coaches, try to help them and see where we can take our football to. Instead of saying ah, this guy has failed, let’s go for another white guy from Germany. No. Let us have a ten-year programme.
You will bring some ex-players together, they will be grooming the players: the ones that are handling the Super Eagles are doing their own job, while the ones handling the home-based team are also doing their own but they will link everything together for the common good.
The different groups share information together like which player is doing well and ready now to join the first team? That is how they do it. That is how they do in Europe. You see these big players people celebrate today, all started from the youth teams and gradually, they grew when their time was ripe and they brought them to the national team.
In Europe, they grow together from U17 and the team work is superb. Why is the teamwork superb? Because they have been playing together since U17. That is what we don’t have here. We don’t have continuation. The team that won that U17 in 2015, did they grow into the Super Eagles?
The team that Amuneke took thereafter, only maybe one or two are in the current Super Eagles. If we had like six, or seven, only then can one say we have continuity.
When Westerhof came, we started from Algiers, gradually, he started making amendments, trying to remove this and replaced with that until t team was ready.
Let’s go back to USA ’94. What actually happened in that match against Italy at Foxboro Stadium? We were three minutes away from victory and all of a sudden, we lost it?
There were too many distractions. You know most times, you look at the end result because that is what most people see. There were too many people at the hotel, people who had no business being there. Westerhof wanted to move us to another hotel, the players disagreed with him. He got angry and left the team, NFA then, brought him back. Too many distractions before the game.
At a time, you were known as the best crosser of the ball in Europe. How did you develop yourself in that. How did you develop the technique?
I started playing from the wings in the Super Eagles. In Sharks, I was a holding midfielder. Even in Calabar Rovers, I was playing in the midfield with Friday Ekpo and John Ene-Okon. I was converted to the right side by Westerhof in the national team. That was how I started playing on the right side.
So, naturally I was a passer of the ball even before going to Europe. So I developed that talent even before I went to Ajax. So when I was converted to the right side, my first option was to look for who to pass the ball to once I got the ball.
How did I develop it? It was through training; doing the same thing all the time, through repetition and it became a part of me. Once I was with the ball, even with my eyes closed, I knew where a player was.
How did you feel when the media was giving you such glowing compliments both here and in Europe?
It is always good to have such individual accolades. I felt good but I did not rest on my oars. I kept on doing what I was best at. If I could give two assists in a game, I would feel good. I was not really into scoring too many goals. My first option was to go in there and give the strikers as many balls as possible, for them to score. At the end of the day, it is a team sport, if we win, everybody will be happy.
The USA ’94 squad again. Despite all the togetherness, the bonding, there were stories about a cabal in the team. Was there really a group that was more influential than the rest of the team, a cabal?
There was nothing like that. Well, maybe from the outside, you may be thinking there was a cabal, but there was nothing like that. Nobody was influencing anybody. The coach had the power to use anyone he wanted based on the player’s form and the strategy he wanted to apply in a particular match. It is always the best players that played. In the 2000/2002 Nations Cup, we had young players who were playing for the team. Players like Yobo were young and playing.
If there was a cabal, those young ones would not have the opportunity to play. It was the coach who decided who played and who did not play. Everybody ought to work hard. Once you were invited to come and play for Nigeria, yeah, you dis your best. Most times, they put me on the bench or took me out, I didn’t cry or make faces. I was taken out in the 2000 Nations Cup final. The coach knew best on who had to play, who was tired and who was not tired. It could be a wrong decision but the unfortunate thing was that we did not win the cup.
Basically, there was no cabal. In this present national team, some players that are not there will say, ah… there is a cabal o, if you go there you will not play. It is a lie.
In 1996, the Super Eagles were supposed to go to South Africa and defend the trophy they won in 1994, then the government of General Abacha said no. How did you feel as player, not going to South Africa that year?
We all really felt bad because we believed that most of our players were at their peak and with that same squad, we would have won and retained the trophy in South Africa. For political reasons, we could not make it. It was painful because we were already in camp when they broke the news to us that we were not traveling. We all felt bad. That definitely, would have been my second Nations Cup trophy. It was unfortunate, that did not happen.
Have you watched the Super Eagles lately?
I saw them in the last Nations Cup.
What do you think they are lacking? And what are they doing right?
In the first place, I don’t know what kind of football we want to play. Sometimes when I look at the team, I don’t know if we want to play counter-attack, or we want to play the passing football like Barcelona or Man City, I never know. Whatever system we want to play, we must choose the right players and choose the right formation. Once you get it wrong in team selection then there will be a problem. You don’t just field players because they are in camp.
During the Nations Cup I was watching but I couldn’t see any discernible pattern. I could not see the strength in that team, where you can say if Musa, Chukwueze or any other person has the ball something is going to happen. A team must have that culture, must-have game-changers. A team should have players one can envisage when the ball gets to this..this…this, you expect that…that…that to happen. In my time, when the ball got to Amuneke, or to Oliseh you knew he would link Yekini and you knew something would happen.
Even if Oliseh decided to go left or right, you knew something would happen. But if you are watching the Nigerian team today, they are just passing…passing… passing and by chance, it could result in a goal. No strategy to say when you get the ball to Musa you would expect this or that to happen. That is what you want to see when you are watching a good team.. When you are a coach, you must get it right. Which players are your key players? You must be able to identify that.
When this player holds the ball, he knows what to do. Today, you watch the Super Eagles and you don’t see the goal coming. When we were playing, it was like you were already predicting a move that would result in a goal from the midfield. It was like seeing the goal before we scored the goal. With our present Super Eagles, you don’t get to see that. They can play for one hour without any serious move. We must have that trademark, an identity in our style of play. That is what we have to bring back.
Like when you watch Liverpool now, between Salah, Mane and Firminho you know that something would happen. You could always see the goal before it is scored. We have to get back our national team and work on it. We have to practice, practice every time until we get it right.
What do you do now?
I worked with youth teams at Mallorca. I got my licenses, that was why I applied for the U-17 job, hoping that there would be that possibility for me to impart in our youth what I have acquired and showcase myself. Now I just sit like a spectator, I am resting, just watching football and learning. I need to be busy on the field because in Europe, you are not going to have that opportunity. It is pretty difficult. That is why we are all coming back home to see if we can do something here.
However, that trust must be there among the parties involved. The NFF must trust us, we ex-players. We are not saying when we come back we are going to run the affairs,,, no, we will just work with the players, clubs, show our experience and teach them something they never knew before. And at the end of the day, one or two players would say, I learnt something from this guy, he contributed something to my career. That is what we want to do.
We agree with you, but Ben Iroha came back here, was an assistant U17 coach. Before the U17 job he coached a club. He cried that there was so much corruption in the Nigerian league. That one could not win a match except one gave bribe and talked about so many other things.
Yeah. That has to stop. Clubs should be able to travel away and win. If clubs can always win at home the players will adapt to the system and believe no matter what effort they put away from home they would lose. At home they must win, no matter how badly they play. It won’t do our league any good.
You see that in the Premier League, they like it when they see Arsenal go to Chelsea and win, they like it. Arsenal fans will be titillating that their team won. Let us emulate that here. A team from Lagos can go to Abia and win; a team from Abia can go to Kano and win. That is when you will see interest will grow in the league and people will say let us go and watch our team.
That is the only way the league can come back gradually. If we insist on bribing referees before we win matches, how then do we intend to develop our players? Everybody will be relaxed and focus only on home games. For instance, if you are playing twenty games, your target is the ten home games. So we should have a system where there should be sanctions for defaulting officials.
The referee association has to pay the referees well. That is how we can stamp out corruption from our domestic league so that teams that are travelling, are going there with the hope of going to win. That is how to bring the league to the desired standard.
The NFF should do more. They should not be thinking only about the Super Eagles. It is the league where everything begins. It is the league that supplies players to the national team.
Now we are running after players that were born in Europe to come back and play for Nigeria. Who will train them for you? You want others to train players and you wait to convert them to change their nationality so they can come and play for Nigeria? Why don’t you train your own here in Nigeria?
I am not saying Nigerians born outside should not play for Nigeria, after all, in the past we had Reuben Agboola and others but they were just one or two. We were not rushing on anybody born in Europe and playing football. All we need do is to work on our home bred players, maybe when you find one or two good ones from outside there they can come and join the team.
Not when you read about one player in the UK and you will want to speak with the father to have him come and play for Nigeria. If you train your team very well, it is they who are born in Europe that will run to identify with the Super Eagles. Put your house in order and they would, on their own come.
Let them be fighting to come, if our league is good and our players are top class players, it is their parents who will be telling them to go join the Nigerian national team. So the level is so bad now that nobody wants to play for Nigeria and we are sending people to go and beg parents, please, your son is a Nigerian, let him come and play for his country of origin.
So let us put our house in order, revive the league and you will see most of these people running to Nigeria and our national team will be stronger.