Gernot Rohr, the super eagles chief coach, has on Monday, June 17, 2019, appealed to Nigerians not to put pressure on his young team ahead of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations holding in Egypt from June 21 to July 19
Asked which of the group B games will be the toughest for Nigeria in the 2019 AFCON, Rohr said: “Burundi, because it is the first match. The first match is always the most difficult match of a competition. Everybody is fresh, the new comers have nothing to lose, and we must be focused tin this game.”
Excerpts of the interview below:
Which country do you think will be a stumbling block for Nigeria?
You know that we are not the first in the ranking of African football, we have teams like Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Cameroon, and there can also be a surprise team in the competition.
We will see what happens match-by-match. We are not the favourite for me. My first favourite to win this AFCON is Egypt, and then Senegal, and then Morocco or Tunisia, but we are among the top five teams for this competition in my prediction.
How will you describe the friendly with Zimbabwe?
It was eight days and we had a good training session. We arrived on Sunday, most of the players were here already. We had special situations like the Ramadan, so some players arrived later. We were complete on Thursday.
We are in a very good spirit. We had twenty-five players and everybody was doing well, and in good conditions, in the hotels, dressing room and in the stadium. We had a memorial for Stephen Keshi, who was a great man while he lived. Everybody was there. We were received in Asaba, we had a special condition, rainfall in Asaba, during the game against Zimbabwe, but even in the condition, I saw a very good game. We were only missing the goals which we have to work on. Our foundation is good, but we have to work on the offensive.
How difficult was it to select the final 23 players for the AFCON
It is always a very difficult decision to take, and everybody deserved to be in the 25-man squad. The problem is that we have so many good strikers and we have to put away a striker and a midfielder, to accommodate the return of Captain Mikel Obi. We had to put out Semi Ajayi and my striker (Kelechi Iheanacho), who was losing confidence, but worked very hard during the week. Everybody in my staff, the five of us agreed on these two names. It is not a good decision to take, but we had to do it, and the players were professional in accepting this decision.
They know that they are still in stand-by. If an injury occurs to any of the player, one of them will be called back. I do not pray for this to happen, but it did happen during the World Cup, when we lost Moses Simon in the last camping, and he had to be replaced.
Let us hope that preparations go well, in Egypt. Certainly in other conditions, it will not be rainy there, it will be hot and I hope we have a good pitch there.
What has been the secret of Eagles impressive record after the World Cup?
I think that this team has a mixture of youthfulness and experience, and also, the atmosphere in the team is very good. We are working hard; we have good defenders and strikers. We don’t know who will be our number one goalkeeper, we will decide after the last weeks of preparations, but we trust our goalkeepers.
So I think our strength is in our solidarity. There is always someone to stand for the other, on and off the pitch. We have new players coming in to bring new mentality to the boys. It is a good refreshing atmosphere and it can help us in Egypt.
I think that the experience of Obi Mikel is also good. Everybody wanted him to come back. He has been well received by the group, like he has always been with us. It is important to make this first week the re-integration of Obi Mikel, as he is on the right way to being fit. So for the moment, we are in very good conditions. I hope no problem arises.
Are you having a good feeling of Nigeria winning the AFCON?
It is a very good prediction. Even when I went to the AFCON with Gabon, we started with a 0-0 draw and won other games in the group. We won against Niger Morocco and Tunisia. I hope to repeat the same.
For our friendly matches, the result is not the most important, but we are unbeaten for the past one year and we want to stay unbeaten. We want to go into our first match against Burundi with a good mind and a good confidence, and continue in the competition, match-by match. But for the moment, our focus is the first match.
Which game do you think will be the toughest in the group?
Burundi, because it is the first match. The first match is always the most difficult match of a competition. Everybody is fresh, the new comers have nothing to lose, and we must be focused tin this game.
Burundi has a very good team. They are unbeaten in the qualifiers. They have good players plying their trade in Europe and South Africa. It will not be easy, but we are Nigeria, we were one of the five teams that represented Africa at the World Cup, so we have experience. From my final 23-man list, 15 were at the World Cup last year, so this experience can help us.
What is your message to Nigerians who have high expectations for the AFCON?
They are right. I also expect a lot from this tournament. But it is not good to put pressure on a young team. Let work, fight and do their best. I can only promise that every training session and match will be on the highest level
And sometimes, we need the help of the “God of football”, and sometimes, the referee decisions too, like we saw in Russia, can affect a team. This is a charm in football that we have to accept.
What I can say to Nigerians now is that, I have been here for three years, and I say that we love this country, we want to do our best and win AFCON for Nigerians, but we have to stay hungry. All the twenty-four teams will be prepared, so to win it, you have to win seven matches.
It will not be easy, but we can only promise to fight lions to go and win the Africa Cup of Nations.