AFCON 2019 WAS TOUGH PHYSICAL TEST FOR EAGLES –ROHR
Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr talks about the 2019 AFCON, his goalkeeping and defensive headaches, a successor for Odion Ighalo, the plight of the African coach and more in this interview with ’TANA AIYEJINA
How do you feel after leading the Eagles to a bronze medal win at the 2019 AFCON in Egypt?
I am happy about it because it is a wonderful medal. It’s not easy, it’s 24 teams now. Before it was easier with 16 teams, but now we have very good countries. In the first knockout round, there were difficult games like we had against Cameroon, Egypt had against South Africa and Morocco had against Benin. So, the value of this bronze medal is very high for me, not only personally but also collectively for everybody. To make the third position, we had to beat the number two in Africa, Tunisia. So, we are happy about it and I was very happy to show it to my children, who were waiting for me to see it.
There were fears that from 16 to 24, teams, the quality of football at the AFCON would drop. Do you think football in Africa has improved?
We had very good conditions with the grass, with the pitches to play football, so the teams could really play good football. We had a good game against Cameroon technically, one touch, two-touch, it was very good. It was hot, especially in the afternoon, the games at 4:30pm were too hot, you cannot really give the best in this hot temperature. It was sometimes more than 50 degrees; it was very hot for the players. The seven games were tough physical tests for all the players. For the last match, we had only two days between the two matches to recover from injuries, three for Tunisian players and Odion Ighalo for us. So, it was very difficult physically, but I think the general technical level is improving; it’s now never easy to beat a country. It’s not easy to beat Swaziland (Eswatini), Burundi and all the countries who were coming for the first time. They were well prepared and it means that the level in Africa is higher now; the small countries are going very close to the good ones.
Against Cameroon at half time in Egypt, it was 2-1 in favour of the Lions, but we saw a different Eagles side in the second half of the quarter-final tie. What did you tell the players during the break?
We were the better team in the first half. That’s what I told the players, ‘we conceded those two goals through mistakes but we were the better team, we will win this match, we have to change something.’ What did we change? There was one player at the back of our midfielders (Maxim) Choupo-Moting, the Cameroon No. 10, and I said we should make a tactical change in our organisation. I said, ‘Wilfred Ndidi, you will stay in this zone, just like the last defensive midfielder, you will push (Oghenekaro) Etebo on the side, with (Alex) Iwobi, we will play higher pressing and so this man (Choupo-Moting) cannot walk in your back, like he did in the first half.’ So, we changed tactically our midfield organisation and it brought more serenity and then we played our football like we do: one touch, two-touch and the two wonderful goals came in from (Odion) Ighalo and Iwobi. The goal from Ighalo was so nice because we practised it in training; full backs giving crosses. What I also saw, and I told the team, was that we were already in the quarter-final, because we saw them coming from the other side, they were coming so proud at half-time, sure to win it. (Clarence) Seedorf and (Patrick) Kluivert were sure to win the match and I said, ‘we stay humble because I believe we are winners.’
Against Algeria in the semi-final, it was 1-1 before they grabbed the back-breaking winner. What was going through your mind at that moment when Riyad Mahrez got that goal?
We wanted to avoid free-kicks around our box but unfortunately, we could not avoid this one, it was very dangerous. I know Mahrez for a long time, we played against him in Uyo and we saw in the Champions League what he can do. We worked a lot on the free-kicks specifically in the training sessions. Perhaps you saw the photo of the wall, while some players were jumping; another was lying down behind the wall. So, we knew that he (Mahrez) could also go on the ground. So, we found the strategy, we had a perfect wall, he could not come through it, and he could not come down but there was only this corner and as a genius footballer, he took such a wonderful shot. If people believe it was a mistake from the goalkeeper (Daniel Akpeyi), I see it as a wonderful achievement from this great player Riyad Mahrez. That’s what he can do like (Lionel) Messi, free-kicks that are strong and straight from the left. What can the goalkeeper do? Perhaps he was one step on the left and he was too far away from the ball. We should have avoided the foul, but we could not. It happened before, my young players especially in the midfield, Ndidi, Etebo, sometimes they commit fouls. You have to learn to control (yourself) individually and not give away these fouls.
That brings us to the goalkeeping area. Football followers insist Akpeyi shouldn’t have been in goal in Egypt. Were you are satisfied with his performance?
This is one of the positions we’ve been working on for a long time. Unfortunately, Carl Ikeme had a health problem (leukaemia) and we had to face the situation before the Cameroon (2018 World Cup qualifying game). Carl began our campaign in Zambia with a wonderful match, we won 2-1, then he was injured against Algeria, not sick yet. The sickness came before the game against Cameroon and I spoke to him with Amaju Pinnick in the clinic. He started his therapy and it was very difficult. So, we had to face this problem and we worked on it and we found (Francis) Uzoho, I had friends, my former goalkeeper coach in Europe, I told him to travel and find somebody and he found this man (Uzoho) in (Deportivo) La Coruna, 18 years, he was only number two or three (goalkeeper) and Seedorf was the coach in La Coruna. He even did not take him in the training of the first team, so we went there and we took the risk to take him to the World Cup and make him play because he made all the games in the second team of La Coruna. He had a good World Cup, he didn’t make any mistake, the future was our priority and then unfortunately he changed clubs but he did not play, but I still believed in him. We also had this home-based goalkeeper, (Ikechukwu) Ezenwa. After the Seychelles game, where Francis made a mistake, we decided with the goalkeeper coach Alloy (Agu) that he was not playing in his club, we saw in training he was not progressing. In training, Ezenwa was the best and then Akpeyi. So, they (Ezenwa and Akpeyi) played 45 minutes each against Egypt to give them the chance to show and they did well. Ezenwa played other matches in his club in Nigeria and he also played the Cameroon game, where he played well. So, we decided together with the keepers’ coach that Ezenwa should be the number one. But he (Ezenwa) got injured in one of the training sessions and could not train for 10 days, he couldn’t play the friendly against Zimbabwe and then we got to Egypt and he could not play. So, we brought in Akpeyi, he did well against Senegal (friendly) and he had two clean sheets in our first games at the AFCON, but we also wanted to see Ezenwa, and he played against Madagascar. Unfortunately, he didn’t have anything to do. You play these games 10,000 times and you win 9,999 times, but on this day, we lost it but it was not the fault of Ezenwa, not at all. They were two mistakes from other players; it’s part of the game. Ezenwa didn’t do a bad job against Madagacar. But we saw progress in Egypt, Uzoho worked hard for five weeks and we decided to put him in the last game, which meant all the 23 players played, it’s something that never happened in Nigeria’s history; that all the 23 players played at the AFCON or World Cup.
Mikel Obi has left. Do you think you can get a replacement for him soon?
We have replaced him already, so this is not really a big problem on the pitch. We have Ahmed Musa, who is a good captain with a different character. We prepared for the retirement of Mikel because he was absent for one year, so tactically and technically, it was not a problem. Already, we have our young midfielders for the future, for 10 years perhaps, because they are still very young and playing in very good clubs. It’s only for Etebo to go to the Premier League now, he deserves it, he is the only one in our team who played all the minutes from the first to the seventh match (at the AFCON) and he is very strong physically. So, we are happy to give Mikel his exit. When I included him in the 23 players for the AFCON, there were criticisms but he deserved to finish well, this I promised him. He was so happy and we are happy with him. So, it’s not only the results, football is also made up of good stories and this is a good example for the young ones. We have other players with experience, we have Ahmed Musa, Kenneth Omeruo and William Troost-Ekong. Unfortunately we don’t have Ighalo, who could also be a natural captain because of his professionalism and attitude in training sessions, during matches and after. I wish he didn’t retire. We all have to thank him for what he did for Nigerian football.
Which players are you looking at for the number nine role, now that Ighalo is gone?
We have Henry Onyekuru, Victor Osimhen, Paul Onuachu, who started the AFCON because Ighalo who was not fit in the first match with Musa. We had a lot of illness in Ismailia, everyone was sick, even John Ogu, the strongest one, fought with fever four to five times. Everybody was sick, so we had to start with the players who were fit. Onuachu was fit, he started. He has another style completely different, to be the goal scorer. He did it against Egypt with his strong shooting; he has a strong physical presence, a very good number nine. I also believe if I did not take Onuachu to the AFCON, Iheanacho was one of the players who could score goals; the only thing is his attitude. He has to work hard; he has to play regularly in his club like Ndidi. He is one who can score goals and be the future goal scorer.
We had two home coaches in the final of the AFCON. What is your impression about African coaches?
Yes, that I think is a very good sign for African football. And all the time when I’m in Nigeria, I tell the people, let’s work to help the local coaches become your coach. Why are you searching for strangers all the time? So, they answered me, ‘you know this local coach will be from this region or this area, he will be privileged to this one or this one or there are issues when we had local coaches before you (Rohr).’ From the four semi-finalists we had two local coaches and two French and German, so I say that I am in the best range of coaches. It depends on the situation in each country. I think there’s a chance to have some good coaches in some African countries which was the case in Algeria and Senegal with Aliou Cisse, they have let him work for more than four years and he knows everything, which is an advantage. You (Nigeria) won with Clemens Westerhorf, he did it also for four years before winning the AFCON. I have looked here in Nigeria, what I see in the local league, the coaches I see, I sometimes see good football, I see also that nobody has international experience. There is Emmanuel Amuneke who has international experience now, but we saw that it was difficult for him in Tanzania. Personally, I want to help coaches where I am, my assistants, especially Imama Amapakabo, Yusuf Salisu, we had a very good relationship and I sent them to other countries. Pinnick wants to send me to Bayern Munich, my former club; I will like to go there in the end of September or the beginning of October. I think it will be better to go with local coaches.
What changes are you looking at in making the team stronger?
We need to improve all the departments in the team. The most important ones are the goalkeeping and goal scoring areas. They are two challenges we’ve been working on for a long time. We knew the problem in the goalkeeping department before the AFCON, that it could be a big problem at the AFCON. So, the bronze medal is really an achievement and we could have even gotten to the final. When you go to the history of winners of AFCON, you must be good in this position (goalkeeping), you must be very good and I think we can be. Then in the defence, we lost our two full backs in the first (AFCON) game. Before then we lost Tyrone Ebuehi, and we had only three full backs. Ola Aina came in for the injured Jamilu (Collins). Awaziem played in France as right-back, he is quick and we tried him and it went well, but it was not easy. Shehu (Abdullahi) is a problem; he is injured all the time. So we still have to work on this department, Tyrone can come back and I think Ola is progressing. There is also the tactical situation in his club, he is playing 3-5-2, with three central defenders, same problem for Kenneth Omeruo and Troost-Ekong; they play 3-5-2 or 5-3-2, which is different. It’s easier for them to play with three in the centre than with two, because with two, you have to be in line, you have to be quick, you have to anticipate. You cannot make any mistake because there is only one person on your side who can help, there is nobody on the other side. So, this is the work we have to do in the defence. Leon Balogun didn’t play any game this year for Brighton before the AFCON. He played against Madagascar and he was not at the rhythm of the competition for a central defender. In the midfield, we have to progress but I think we have a midfield for a few years. They will grow together, they will find complexity, they will play like thy do in their clubs, they know how the other player is doing, the communication will be better. And for the wingers, we found Samuel Chukwueze, a good player for the future, Ahmed Musa has to work hard because the level in Saudi Arabia is not so high, it’s very hot also and it’s not easy. It will be wonderful to play with Musa and Chukwueze. We also have Samuel Kalu, who unfortunately had this health problem before the first (AFCON) match. It was a shock, everybody was scared, but it was dehydration. We brought him back fit. I spoke with his coach in Bordeaux, and now he can play, he is 100 per cent fit. We also have Henry (Onyekuru) and Moses (Simon) in the wingers’ positions. Kalu can also play on both sides; he is good with both feet. So, in the offensive department, I think we have our players, we know their qualities. Perhaps there could be a tactical challenge if we don’t find the same goal scorer like Ighalo. But there is also a tactical answer to that. If we can play the 4-4-2, you put a tall one (striker) and a small one around him, quick one.
There was a video of the AFCON medal presentation that went viral online, which showed NFF boss Amaju Pinnick refusing to shake hands with you. Was there a problem between you and him?
I saw it; somebody sent it immediately to me. Ask the president (Pinnick) why he did it, I didn’t do anything, I wanted to shake him. So, you must ask him why he did it, I watched the video with Victor Ikpeba, we laughed about it. The president did not explain to me but I know exactly what happened, because I arrived as the last person on stage for the medal presentation. Before me was Tunde, my assistant, he wanted to take the medal from Pinnick and Pinnick said, ‘no, I will start from you (Rohr) but he was the last one out of the four people giving out the medals. The first was Constant (Omari), CAF vice president; he was happy to see me and took me in his arms and gave me the medal, I could not say no. I didn’t know that Pinnick wanted to present the medal to me. It was later I heard it. Pinninck told Tunde that he wanted to give me, so he was a little bit worried about this situation but I only understood it after. He (Pinnick) went to Constant and asked why he gave me the medal. I understood that it was joy for him to give me the medal because we had a face to face conversation in Cairo where we could speak about all the problems, so there was no problem between us at that moment, and the misunderstanding was unfortunate. And then later, I said, ‘president, come’, because I was watching him when he went up. He came and we joined the players for the photo session. The cameras caught us behind the players but I didn’t see all these photos, they only shot this video, I’m talking about the bloggers, so many bloggers here in Nigeria.
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