As the countdown to the World Cup continues, Nigeria’s coach Gernot Rohr has been talking about the preparation of the Super Eagles as well as his personal dreams. In this interview with South Africa’s Soccer Laduma’s David Kappel, Rohr explains why the win over the Albiceleste was actually to Nigeria’s disadvantage and talks about the Super Eagles’ World Cup preparations, before opening up about the painful defeat to South Africa.
David Kappel: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about Nigeria’s national team and 2018 FIFA World Cup preparations. Nigeria are one of five African teams to qualify for the World Cup. How are the preparations going?
Gernot Rohr: All is going as planned, quite well actually at this point. We have lined up all our opponents for friendlies in preparation for the World Cup. We have organised our training bases in Russia. We have been scouting our players and will continue to do so. On paper we have a great plan for our preparation but now we need to implement that plan and I hope everything will be organised well.
DK: Sounds good. We see you have lined up friendlies against Poland, Serbia and DR Congo…
Gernot Rohr: That’s correct and afterwards we will play England at the Wembley Stadium. That’s a great match, and four days later we will play against the Czech Republic.
DK: You were in Russia for some kind of workshop last week. What was discussed there?
Gernot Rohr: We were there for a FIFA seminar – we spoke about the implementation of the Video Assistance Referee system. We spoke about the new technology, about how to analyse it. One assistant from each country’s national team will be allowed to sit in the stand and give feedback to the coaching team. It was an interesting programme about the new developments and we were able to meet colleagues. We were also informed about how to handle press conferences, etc.
DK: You mentioned the implementation of VAR at the World Cup. It has received a lot of criticism in leagues and countries where it’s implemented already. What’s your take?
Gernot Rohr: I’m all for it. It will bring justice to many situations and it will help the referees. Of course, there are some small hiccups in the beginning as with any new system. I have noticed some small issues in the Bundesliga and in other countries where it has been implemented, but it will be more accepted over time.
DK: During the qualification campaign, Nigeria had one of the toughest groups with Algeria, 2017 Africa Cup of Nations winners Cameroon as well as Zambia. Nevertheless, Nigeria were the first African team to qualify for the World Cup and, on top of that, you also stayed unbeaten. Were you a little surprised yourself by this strong qualification?
Gernot Rohr: No, I wasn’t surprised because I knew we had a good team with many young and ambitious players, who can still develop. I was confident that we could qualify. It wasn’t surprise for me. The only aspect that did surprise me was how quickly we qualified and how relatively easy it was. That was a positive surprise. I didn’t expect it to be this easy.
DK: Nigeria’s last defeat in the World Cup qualification dates almost 14 years back, which is amazing. What were the strengths of Nigeria’s latest qualification?
Gernot Rohr: Nigeria always had to wait until the last game of the qualification to qualify and this time we booked the ticket with one game to spare. What helped us in this qualification was our mental strength, we played as a unit and tactically solid. Our morale was also strong and we were able to deal with setbacks through injuries and ill players. We had some problems with our goalkeepers but were able to stabilise this position through hard work. We added a second goalkeeper coach to help us in that department. We have a good technical team that was able to deal with any issues.
DK: In the World Cup draw, Nigeria once again received a tough group. The Super Eagles are up against Argentina, Iceland and Croatia. What was your first reaction after the draw?
Gernot Rohr: How do I say this? Of course, I would have wanted an easier group. But it is what it is. Now we have this strong group. If you look at our FIFA ranking, we are only in 52nd position – the others are far ahead of us. I think they sit in position 14, eight and four. That means we are the underdogs. We were only in Pot four in the draw, we mustn’t forget that. But we are an underdog with ambition and we want to get into the knockout stages, even though it will be very difficult. That’s our target.
DK: Can you tell us something about how your preparations for the individual opponents will look like? For example, are you trying to watch a game of Argentina or Croatia yourself?
Gernot Rohr: Like everyone else is doing it these days, we will scout our opponents. We will send scouts to watch their games. We have already started to analyse videos of our opponents and we will try to get as much information as possible about our opponents. But we will also monitor and scout our own players in order to choose the best squad. And we have lined up our friendly games against teams that are playing similarly to the opponents in our group.
DK: Can you already tell us if there will be a special plan for Lionel Messi?
Gernot Rohr: At this stage, there is no special plan. We don’t even know whether he will play. Of course, we all know him and we know of his quality. But we also played against some really good players in our qualification and were able to deal with them. We had Riyad Mahrez at Algeria, we played against Sadio Mane and Senegal in a friendly. We know how to organise our defence against top quality players. What I can tell you now already is that there will be no man-marking of Messi. We did this in the old days, even myself, but it’s not used too often these days. We will deal with Messi or any big player as a collective. But often you won’t be able to keep top players quiet over the whole 90 minutes.
DK: In one of your last friendly games, you faced Argentina and beat them, somewhat surprisingly, 4-2. Do you think the game was an indicator of what’s to come from your side?
Gernot Rohr: Remember, Messi didn’t play. So we are very cautious and have to analyse this great result in context. Argentina had played another friendly against Russia in Russia before facing us. Perhaps they were a bit tired – they also left Russia soon after our game. I think no one should overrate the result. I definitely won’t overrate it. It was definitely not to our advantage because Argentina will take us more seriously now.
DK: Is there a goal from the Nigerian Federation as to how far Nigeria should go?
Gernot Rohr: As far as possible (laughs). We all want to make it out of the group, and that’s already difficult enough. And of course our fans dream about Nigeria making it out of this difficult group and perhaps even going far in the tournament after we beat Argentina. But we are no dreamers. As coach and technical team, we will enter the tournament with realistic and modest expectations, but also with ambition.
DK: During the World Cup four years ago in Brazil, Nigeria made headlines after the players had boycotted training overpaid bonus payments. How do you…
Gernot Rohr: (Interrupts) This is all sorted already. We already met in Krasnodar during the latest international break with the leaders in our team. And we signed a document with officials from the Nigerian Football Federation that everything is sorted and prepared, at least on paper. That’s great and I hope everyone will stick to what we agreed on. In theory, everything is sorted and that’s fantastic.
DK: Which players would you describe as the backbone of your team?
Gernot Rohr: We have a few very experienced players, such as our captain John Obi Mikel (Tianjin Teda, China). Our two central defenders William Troost-Ekong (Bursaspor, Turkey) and Leon Balogun (Mainz, Germany) are also very important to us. We have players such as Victor Moses (Chelsea, England) and Alex Iwobi (Arsenal, England) – they are also very important for us. We have many young players, and everyone has a role to play in our team. But the most important leaders are our captain Mikel, the vice-captain Ogenyi Onazi, and Ahmed Musa also.
DK: Daniel Akpeyi plays for Chippa United in South Africa and could be one of the few players from the South African league at the World Cup, if he is called up to the final squad. How do you assess his chances to jump on the plane going to the World Cup?
Gernot Rohr: He has good chances to be one of our three goalkeepers for the World Cup. Unfortunately, our first-choice keeper Karl Ikeme is still suffering from acute leukaemia. We had a recent injury to Ikechukwu Ezenwa, but he will soon return to fitness. We have also discovered a young keeper in Francis Uzoho, who plays for Deportivo La Coruna. He played well against Argentina in the second half. Akpeyi was a bit unfortunate in our only defeat against South Africa. But he is working hard, he is fighting and he has a chance to be part of our World Cup squad.
DK: There are rumours that Vincent Enyeama may go back on his decision to retire from the national team. Is there any news about his situation?
Gernot Rohr: There is no update. He has problems in Lille at his club. He is currently not playing and is only the number three at his side. He wanted to switch clubs but he didn’t find a new team. As a consequence, the question about Enyeama returning is not really up for debate.
DK: Speaking of South Africa, your first loss as Nigeria coach came against Bafana Bafana. The victory was highly celebrated here because it was South Africa’s first win against Nigeria in an official game. What were your lessons from that defeat?
Gernot Rohr: I did regret the defeat, but I think South Africa were very lucky. We had more possession. We had the better chances. South Africa scored with only their second shot – that was quite fortunate. Perhaps they celebrated the victory too much, because they hardly won any other game afterwards. One always has to remain modest even in victory. But we looked at ourselves, we questioned ourselves and showed a great response against Cameroon in the two games after changing a few things. In addition, I missed almost half of my team. It was in June, which means our English players were totally exhausted or not present. It wasn’t a great time for us. But we learned our lessons from this painful defeat and corrected our mistakes. Hopefully we can correct the loss in the return leg.
DK: How do you rate the chances of the other African countries (Senegal, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia) at the World Cup?
Gernot Rohr: Good chances. Egypt is the best team in Africa as voted by CAF. They have the best coach. They have a chance in the group with Russia. The whole world will follow the group with the hosts. They also have the best player in Africa in Mohamed Salah. I also think Senegal are strong, Tunisia, too, based on their strong league. A lot is possible for the African teams. Morocco with Herve Renard is also very good. They won the recent CHAN tournament, which proves that they have good local-based players. It would be great if all African teams could reach the next round. That would be superb for African football.
DK: Do you think one of the African teams could perhaps surprise and go further than any African side before and reach the semi-final?
Gernot Rohr: That’s our dream. We all hope one African team can finally reach the semi-final.
DK: Which countries do you think will end up playing for the World Cup title?
Gernot Rohr: Germany and France – that’s what my heart wants. Brazil, and there is always a surprise team in the semi-final. I hope this surprise team can come from Africa.
DK: Thanks for the insights and all the best for your preparations.