February 22, 2020

Why Rohr’s Eagles can’t play beyond their level ― Ben Iroha

Why Rohr’s Eagles can’t play beyond their level ― Ben Iroha

Today we serve you the concluding part of the interview we had with former Nigeria international, Ben Iroha. He spoke on his experiences as a coach with the various national teams and what can make Nigeria football great gain. Iroha spoke with Weekend Editor Onochie Anibeze and Deputy Sports Editor, Jacob Ajom. Excerpts

Eagles, Rohr, Iroha

Nigerian players pose for the official team picture, 24 June at the Stadium in Toulouse, south of France, before their 1998 Soccer World Cup third Group D first-round match against Paraguay. (Standing from top left: Kanu, Sunday Oliseh, Taribo West, Peter Rufai, Uche Okafor, Rashidi Yekini; bottom left, Augustine Eguavoen, Ben Iroha, Wilson Oruma, Garba Lawal, Tijani Babangida)
(ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO (Photo by Omar TORRES / AFP) (Photo credit should read OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images)

What you said about the chemistry between you and Jay Jay reminds us about Finidi who, in our interview with him, recalled how he could close his eyes and know where to place the ball. He said then, one could see a move and knew if it would result in a goal. And that is what you can’t find in today’s Super Eagles?

The boys are playing according to their level. There is no way you can play above your level. You can’t give what you don’t have. People want to compare them with our set. There is no basis for comparison.

No set can be like our set. Who can play like Okechukwu; a man who can take the ball away from you without dropping a sweat, almost 90 games no yellow card. We played simple football. As the ball got to Uche, he would pass it to Oliseh and from there you could predict who next would get the ball.

Now they get the ball, caress it like a baby in trying to play possession football which is good. But do they have the players to play it?.

These days who talks like Keshi did in our time? Keshi was just like a coach. When he stood everybody else must sit. We don’t have such a commanding figure again. Today, when you see the Eagles in the bus, all of them would cover their ears with gadgets.

When I was coaching them, as interim coach with Eguavoen, before Siasia took over, I would ask Yobo, what is happening? Bluetooth or whatever should be used in your private time. When you are in the bus going for a game, you should make noise and motivate one another as one big family.

ALSO READ: Yobo: I’ll make Eagles defence impregnable

I said this was not the Nigerian team I knew. Too cold, not warm like we were. They are now strangers, even among themselves. When we were playing, while in camp, we chose one room every day to go and gist and it bonded us.

We would be there playing and making rib-cracking jokes till 2 am. But now, everybody is so big and each person unto himself. There is so much ego these days. Money, no matter how much of it you have ends in your house.

When you get to Eagles camp you are all equal. Go to Brazil camp, you hear them singing and beating their samba drums. They are all billionaires but they play together like kids. Now, I don’t know what is wrong with our boys.

I think ego is too much. Even when we were playing in Europe, when we got to Eagles camp, we were equal, like kids. The national team was a leveler. Fraternity.

Does this attitude also bother on coaching and man management?

Yes. You are the coach and you have the authority. If Westerhof noticed you were distancing yourself from the rest of the squad, he would change your room. As a coach, you have to behave like a father also.

When one player signed billions of Dollars and wanted to bring that attitude to camp, Westerhof brought him down to earth. He said if you are ‘the king in your club, here is Eagles camp. Before you knew it, the player was beaten to form.

In 1994, FIFA wrote to Nigeria to ask what they were feeding you, people, with; the kind of nutrition you got that made you to be unbelievably fit. Dr. Akin Amao, a team doctor then can testify to that letter.

They tested us several times, but could not find anything. After every match, at least five of us were tested. The joy was that they found nothing. Our diet was okay in Holland. Our preparation was top notch. We trained four times every day for good two months. You couldn’t stand and look yourself in the mirror.

We were so fit. If you hit metal, an iron on the body of any of us then the person withstood it. Early in the morning, we would run for like 30 minutes from 6 am. Breakfast at 8 am gym 10. After lunch, we would go to the pitch at about 4 pm for training. It was like that for two months. You needed to see Westerhof in action.

Our cheeks went in, so dry. We were fit. From then we started moving from one country to another for friendly matches. Our not winning the World Cup was God’s design. We did everything humanly possible to target it.

But it was not to be. If we had escaped Italy, we would have beaten Spain. Spain should have been a walk over. We were so fit that we could have won that cup. Truly, things happened and we lost it outside the field.

We spoke with Finidi and he recalled that there were a lot of distractions and Westerhof wanted to move out of the hotel with the team but some players resisted the move.

We came to Boston for that game from Dallas where we beat Bulgaria 3-0 and Westerhof was not happy with the conditions in camp. The place was loose and he wanted to instill discipline in the camp.

Some players resisted. Again, the conduct of Jo Bonfrere. It appeared Bonfrere started scheming. That too affected the team as some players were on the side of Bonfrere. If you could notice, that affected the substitutions Westerhof made in that match. When Amuneke got injured he brought Oliha.

Amuneke was pushing them backward. Oliha was in the central midfield as he held the ball, the Italians started coming at us. Because Westerhof was fighting with his assistant, he made the substitutions without consulting his assistant. If he shared that thought with him before the change, perhaps, they would have deliberated on it and it could have yielded a different outcome.

And I think it was not even about consultation because Westerhof at that time probably didn’t want to use a player who was a rebel or in bed with Bonfrere. That USA ’94 squad could have gone all the way to the final because the road was clear for us to have capitalised on. Westerhof felt bad that a man he brought to Nigeria and was even paying from his pocket could be scheming against him.

There was bad blood which was not helped by some players. If the camp was as smooth as it used to be before then, we would have gone far in that World Cup. The players were there, the fitness was there.

We had the tactics but lost to distraction that started outside the pitch. You can’t compare any other team with that team because the passion, the love and the patriotic zeal kept pushing us on.

Till date, when we meet each other, we don’t shake but we hug each other. We still behave like schoolboys. I remember when we met again during the NFF-AITEO annual awards when we were honoured, the mistake they made was to put us together. We did not sleep until 4 am.

After all the experiences and your eventual retirement, how is Nigeria benefiting from you? It is said most of you, ex-internationals are talking from the outside, how do you get more involved in Nigeria football?

I have tried. I left my family in the US and came down here to coach. I started with FC Abuja and moved to the national teams. But I was not really given a chance to express myself because I was bold. When you live in two worlds, and anything happens in one, you quickly move to the other.

I know what I can do. When I was playing football, there were a number of people wanting me to sign autographs. When I came back people wanted things done another way. I said no, for my knowledge and what I have contributed, I can’t take anything thrown at me.

By God’s grace I have coached all the national teams as an assistant. U17, U20, U23 and Super Eagles. I was part of the late Coach Yomi Tella’s World Cup-winning U-17 technical crew.

So when you reach this level and knowing how much you devoted your youth playing for this country, you have a lot to offer and if the guys in charge do not respect that what do you do? For instance, where is the left-back in the Eagles these days? I played that position for more than ten years.

ALSO READ: Technical Director: NFF denies Daniel Amokachi

It’s not all of us that can be coaches. What happens if you take like eight of us to the World Cup? Would that be too much? Other nations do it. Take us there as advisers or motivators to the boys, tell them these are our legends who played for the country before. They are not appreciating us.

I know we are over 2000 former footballers in the country but there are a few that really made a bigger impact, those that lifted Nigeria to this level should be appreciated, particularly when they are showing interest to serve. And many of us have interest to serve.

That is why Odegbami started a campaign, which we in Vanguard are ready to champion for ex-internationals, especially from your set to take over because many of you are good; having played under some top European coaches and retired to coaching.

We have realised that the gap between you and the so-called oyibo coaches is not much. Some of you are even better. Why can’t they employ some of you to take over the national teams?

I don’t know why they are scared of us. I don’t really know why. Look at Eguavoen, for instance, yes, he has had his chance in the past but right now he is doing nothing. And he did not fail.

He went to Nations Cup and won bronze, the same thing the man there now won. In Europe he would be somewhere now. Mutiu is here, Okechukwu Uche, Taribo West is here, Ikpeba, Babangida. Jay Jay should be involved because of what he did for this country, Kanu, etc.

Why did I go back{to the US}? I went back because my being here was not benefiting me anymore. If I am here, my family in America should feel the impact of my stay here. I should make the money that can keep them comfortable.

That money should fill the space created by my absence over there. Otherwise, what would I be doing here? I am here with you because I take you as a member of my family otherwise, I don’t talk football anymore because I don’t know anything going on again. Ask me about the league, I wouldn’t know anything because I don’t know any player again.

My interest has shifted to something else. I only watch Eagles when they are playing in tournaments like the World Cup, or follow those who play in Europe. I really don’t know anything anymore. I only visit Nigeria and return to my family.

ALSO READ: Boxing: Deontay, Fury gear up for rematch Saturday

Talking about ex-internationals, Keshi did well with the Super Eagles. He won the AFCON and took the team to the second round of the World Cup in Brazil, so why not try another person? In Europe, a coach is hired, he does well, he stays if he fails he is fired and goes elsewhere and succeeds. They revolve their coaches. Here you make one or two mistakes, you are gone forever. Why can’t we do like the Europeans?

After Amuneke did well with Tanzania, why can’t he come back home? I thought they would invite him to come and work with Gernot Rohr, the Super Eagles coach and from there he would take over. Where is he today? He did very well with unknown and untested players in Tanzania.

So what will happen if he has the calibre of players in the Super Eagles? You can only imagine what he would achieve with the kind of players Nigeria parades. They won’t do it(hire him).

Tell us about your experience with the U17 team that won the World Cup with late coach Yomi Tella.

It was so interesting. I have never seen a group of young players {because age cheat was not much in that team} like the ones we had. There was this boy, an attacking midfielder, who could have been something close to Jay Jay. He was a fantastic player because he had everything.

Tella saw my expertise on the pitch and said in Yoruba, oto, meaning, it is done or it is finished, I can now go and rest. I worked with everything I had, even when I knew whatever I did was in Tella’s name, the assistant was not known, but it didn’t matter to me.

The head coach told me Chrisantus was not going to the World Cup because he didn’t see anything in him. I pleaded with him, give me this boy for two weeks and I would change him for good. He did and I trained these boys telling them what to do.

The good thing about it was that if I told them to do something and they could not do it, I would do it myself and they would learn from how I did it. Some of them couldn’t joggle the ball 100 times. For me, that is where it all begins.

All of us that started that time in Enugu, Aba, Owerri believed in ball joggling. I told them the only way you could be skillful is your ability to keep the ball up, control well in space or in air. If you can achieve that it means you can as well control it when it is on the ground. When you control the ball effectively it obeys you and you can tell the ball what to do.

We trained the boys very well and won 11 straight games before the World Cup proper. From the qualifications, we played in Togo before going to Korea. We were never beaten. Tella, too, cooperated very well, while Manu was the third assistant. We had a very good understanding and there was no competition.

Tella just handed the team to me. It was as if I was in charge. Before every training, he would ask me what the programme for the day was. He would suggest we should play 11 aside. I would tell him no. Let us keep these boys hungry for a full game. Every week, they played 11-a-side once or twice.

What we did more was tactical training, forming groups of four into four groups. You were just to keep possession and not to lose the ball easily. The coach openly expressed surprise that people could play a game without scoring? That was how we packaged the team to win the World Cup.

It hurts that we still have the problem of players not transiting from one level of the national team to the next. Switzerland came here and won the U17 tournament, three years later, most of them were in their senior national team. Why have we not been able to achieve that type of smooth transition?

It doesn’t happen because there is no progress. The boys are now talking about money. They don’t care about the progress. I can recall that Mikel Obi played with Messi in U20. Though Mikel tried.

Look at Chrisantus, he went to Germany and signed for a wrong team. I warned him against going to Germany. I advised him to go to places like Holland, France and grow from there.

When Iheanacho went to Man City, they called me and I said he went to the wrong team because Iheanacho does not have the speed and the ability to play with the ball. I advised he should go to a team he would learn more.

They asked if I was not happy for the young lad, I told them I was telling the truth because he needed to learn more before going to City. He was signed as a top player but he couldn’t do much because he was exposed too early.

The transition is not there because we lack continuity in everything. The Federation can effect a change with some policies.

Don’t you also see the problem from our own side, the way we develop these players? For instance, if the federation had retained you and kept a close eye on these players, it would have been easier to invite them to the next level?

That would have been the best in terms of continuity. Even if I was not moved to the next level, I could still have passed useful information to the coach of the next team. I could recommend to my colleague the player or players I feel could move to the next level.

That’s what I was saying. Coaches can cooperate. You can tell the Super Eagles coach, look I have this player who played in my team last time and he is doing very well. You may have a look at him. I feel he can fit into your team.

That is the way it is done elsewhere. But here, nothing like that, as coaches don’t even like themselves. I have never seen a Nigerian coach invite ex-internationals to come and address the players. The coaches are scared, maybe one would take their jobs. We have a long way, and it is not good.

Some of us are not feeling that we are Nigerians. In the US, once in a while, ESPN invites me to interview me and sometimes my former teammates who are in top positions in clubs would invite me to organise some skill training sessions, they would fly me to and fro and give me small money. They ask you were better than us, why is your country not using you when we are in charge here?

I would tell them my country is different. It hurts that the thing you love to do, you are not doing it anymore. It is really painful. To keep going, I have abandoned football and faced business.

Do you think the Eagles would be in better hands if they were under indigenous coaches?

I am not saying so because Westerhof and Bonfrere Jo came here and did very well. Those are the two most successful foreign coaches Nigeria has ever had. That was then. Right now, we have attained that level we should take charge.

We have played and worked with several foreign coaches so we should take charge. Nigeria is a big country and we have quite a number of us who have attained the necessary qualification to handle any national team. But they are not carrying us along at all.

We have observed that most foreign coaches that come these days are not extraordinary. Some work like mercenaries, they stay in Europe and come to Nigeria two or three days to a match. After the match, they are gone, till the next engagement.

That is the difference between them and Westerhof who lived here. He used to tell us I am Ibo, he ate our food and even took on a Nigerian woman when he parted with his Dutch wife. He would say, don’t worry, I have my Ibos in the defence, just tell them the bonus and they would perform for you.

I have Ben Iroha, Okechukwu Uche, Chidi Nwanu, just tell them how much bonus you would give them and you would see how they would perform.(laughter). That was the kind of motivation Westerhof gave us.

In our time we didn’t need too much coaching because we already had it in us. Just tell us what was involved and $5,000 was not small money then. We were highly motivated.

When we played Cote d’Ivoire, I pulled my hamstring and I was to mark Benv Salah who was the most dangerous player for Cote d’Ivoire then. Westerhof asked if I could play the game, I assured him not to worry, I would play. I endangered my career to feature in that game because of the passion, patriotism and for the coach.

I believed Westerhof would back me all the way. I met the team doctor to inject me with pain killers that would keep me for at least three hours. That was the match Siasia was blamed for failing to pass the ball to Yekini.

Westerhof pulled him out of the team and for months until people had to intercede for him to return to the team. Even though we lost that game, what I did was to play with pain. No player would do that today because it would hurt their career.

On a lighter mood. The then Sports Editor of Vanguard could have been a Nigerian ex-international but you denied him a place after he had been chosen and dressed to play for Nigerian in a friendly match in Holland?

Onochie, you were like one of us. There was this game we were to play and the players were not complete. It was just the second or third day in camp. They were 10 players and Onochie would have been the 11th to complete the team.

I had already told the team I couldn’t come because of club engagement. However, my club eventually let me to go. Onochie had dressed already when I arrived. It was a shocker to him when I drove in. That is how free we were then. These days the Eagles don’t like people going near them because they have money.

It is good to have money, change a fraction of it and share to the boys. Give them a little and they would appreciate you. We never were scared of anybody. We moved freely. Why should you be scared of the fans that support you?

How much can they take from you? Just give them a little. People don’t follow the Super Eagles anymore. Some people go to the stadium, only when there is a game. Then some people come to our camp for days before the match day. It was fun at camp in those days and Onochie went around with us, sometimes training with us.

What would you say of your dead colleagues like Stephen Keshi, Rashidi Yekini, Uche Okafor, Thompson Oliha, Wilfred Agbonivbare, among others?

I don’t like talking about them, especially, all were my close friends. Big Boss(Kehi) was like a big brother. Uche’s demise was something else. It was a painful death. I lost a favourite friend because he was my roommate from the beginning to the end. Uche told me he had a job back home then and he was coming home to do something soon.

He said he was coming to join me. I moved from America three days before Uche’s death. I was expecting my friend to come and join me when my brother called to inform me that Uche was dead and that he hung himself.

I doubted him and still doubt the circumstances surrounding his death. Uche loved life and was doing very well. So, his death was very crazy and shocking. After his death, I couldn’t sleep in my house alone for more than one month. This was a guy we talked on a daily basis. His death was shocking and painful.

For the Big Boss, his death was unbelievable. I wish Nigeria will remember them one day and honour them. Their families should benefit and enjoy from their sweat. It would show that their work was appreciated. That is how it is done in other countries.

The way forward for Nigerian football.

My brother, if I tell you I have an answer I may be telling lies. I do not know how it works now, whether they have sponsors now or it is still government-funded. But what we need is corporate involvement.

We have very many big multinationals operating in this country; MTN, Coca Cola, Multichoice, Globacom, Nigeria Breweries, Guinness Nigeria, numerous oil companies, etc.. They should get involved like getting their own clubs.

They make a lot of money from Nigeria. In those days there were a lot of clubs owned by companies like Leventis United, NPA, ACB, New Nigerian Bank, Bendel Insurance among others. When sponsors pick an interest, the teams would be better funded and before the end of the month, the players are paid their dues.

With regular pay, the good players would stay and we will enjoy good football. Now you go to the stadium, you don’t see the crowd, you don’t see good football. People prefer to stay at home and watch European leagues on television.

However, if there are good players, for instance, you hear Okocha is joining Heartland, spectators would come out in their thousands because they want to see Okocha. Even if he touches the ball for one second the stadium will explode.

We need sponsors, good money, pay the players well and leave this academy thing because it is benefitting the agents more than the country. We must make the league strong, financially and organizationally and the boys would stay.

How many South Africans do you find playing abroad? How many Egyptians, Tunisians, etc. Even Ivory Coast, their players don’t go out anyhow. So, we have to make the league stronger. That is the way forward.

Vanguard News