Super Eagles coach Rohr hits back at demands to use Nigeria-based players

Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr spoke at length with ESPN about many aspects of Nigeria football. Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Nothing fazes Gernot Rohr.

At 66 years old, the Nigeria coach has seen and experienced just about all there is to be seen and experienced. Attempts to rile him, whether contrived or not, continue to fall flat in the face of his measured disposition.

Throughout his tenure as Super Eagles coach, and in recent weeks, there have been calls for him to select more Nigeria-based players in the national team; but Rohr shut that down, telling ESPN in a lengthy interview that the country's best players are in Europe not Nigeria,

"We cannot find all the time players in the local league who are better than the other ones," Rohr told ESPN.

The criterion for us, the first criteria is the quality of the players. Everybody knows, not only in Nigeria, that the best players are in Europe or somewhere else in professional leagues. That is the fact."

As true as that statement may be, it is bound to put Rohr firmly in the line of fire with critics. As if he were not already the centre of attention.

With football -- like other sports -- on a coronavirus-enforced pause, few topics have dominated Nigerian sporting discussion as much as the Super Eagles coach, his contract, his technical abilities (or perceived lack of), and everything else in between.

Early this week, Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) president Amaju Pinnick stoked those fires in a television interview in which he disclosed certain conditions in the new contract to be offered to the coach.

In typical style, Rohr doused that particular fire in a quick reaction to ESPN, but it did not quite seem to be enough to address the other issues.

Among those issues were the NFF's recent decision to fire Imama Amapakabo, one of Rohr's more trusty assistants, and replace him with the inexperienced former Nigeria captain Jospeh Yobo.

Both the manner of the decision (without the coach being consulted) and the speed of it, not to mention the relative lack of certification of the replacement, would have been enough to rile any other coach.

Not Rohr

"It is interesting to have such a former player with us," Rohr said.

"I was satisfied with the job of Imama. He was a very good assistant. But NFF decided to change so I have to accept, and I accept. I see that this person now is in a good spirit and I am happy about it. There will not be any problem in our staff.

"I think it only could be so easy to say let's do two years more. Nothing special from my side that I want more. So it could be very easy."

To demonstrate his lack of ill-feeling, Rohr said he had already put the newest addition to his staff to work

"We spoke together; he gave me a first call and then I called him back and we are in touch regularly. I even asked him to help me already because I cannot move for the moment to take connections and contact our players in Nigeria.

"I asked him to meet and speak with Ikechukwu Ezenwa, with Ifeanyi Ifeanyi who was with us for one of the last games. There is also Samuel Kalu, who is also in Lagos because he was able to take one of the last planes out of France. So I asked him to be in touch with some of our players who are in Nigeria, and that is what he did.

"I am happy to see that he has good motivation and is in good spirits and I think we can have a good working relationship together."

Ezenwa and Ifeanyi -- whom Yobo will be monitoring on Rohr's behalf -- are part of the German's rebuttal to suggestions that he does not give players from Nigeria's domestic league a chance in his national squad.

Ezenwa has been a permanent fixture of Rohr's squad from the get go, and he was even first-choice goalkeeper for the majority of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Ifeanyi was called up for games while was an Akwa United player before he left for Europe.

Rohr pointed out that the numbers back him up, if not the players who run off after call-ups.

"I invited already more than 23 or 24 local players since I have been in charge of the Super Eagles," he said, adding with a slight chuckle, "but we invite them and then immediately they are going to Europe. It is wonderful for them but maybe not for us."

With the B Super Eagles team, which is comprised of domestic league players, failing to qualify for the Africa Nations Championships (CHAN), a tournament for players who play in their country, Rohr said his job had been made more difficult.

"CHAN team and under-20 team must play all the time. The coaches who are responsible for these teams, must work with me together. And normally the best of the league are in either CHAN or under-20 or under-17."

And Rohr says he still has his scouts looking for young prospects in the country, and advises the league clubs to look to the academies for talent.

"I think they should also look at the academy to find the best young players. This could be a new chapter of this next future. That is why I have also my assistants like Victor Agali, like Alloy Agu, who are watching for me, looking for players in the local league. Especially for the goalkeepers, for Alloy to bring me goalkeepers from the league."

Young players have always been Rohr's focus in his time as Nigeria coach.

At the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Nigeria had the youngest squad. At the Africa Cup of Nations a year later, the team were the second youngest, and the German says it was deliberate.

With players such as Victor Osimhen, Samuel Chukwueze, Francis Uzoho and Wilfred Ndidi growing into leading roles with the team, Rohr says the next step on the ladder is the development of a uniform playing philosophy that cuts across all the national teams.

"I don't know now how the NFF will organize it but there must be a good collaboration between us with under-23, with under-20, with the under-1 -- and even with the women's team. I had a good solidarity with the women's coach before [Thomas Dennerby] but now he is gone.

"This unity [is something] we need to have in our different teams. To go in the same direction, to play with the same philosophy. The philosophy is to play offensive football with good wingers, with quickness with strikers, young players but also experienced players, too.

"We have good players, great players, young players. Now let us have football that plays well with their talent. Let us lay a good foundation from the back, and then go forward quickly to find our wingers. Then I think we have a good chance to go to the World Cup again and do better than the last time.

"We can do also the same for the local team.

"You know they are not playing the Afcon but there is a lot of things to do for them, to get right the playing philosophy the same as the others. But I am not the coach for the local team. The coach was before my assistant, and we had good work together. Now we have to see what happens."

For the here and now, though, Rohr has an immediate concern. The potential fixture congestion that will follow the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

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"When you see the calendar which will come, there will be so many games in the second half of the year. And already decisive games for the World Cup will start in the end of the year. The qualification for Afcon, too, will have to finish before.

"So there will be so many games. Next year, I saw the calendar, perhaps we will have around 20 games.

"If we are in the Afcon, and I think we can do it, we will have one or two friendlies to prepare and then I hope seven games again until the finals. Small final and big final, could be nine games. And then you have the World Cup qualifiers; can be 10. A friendly again or two, 11. A lot of matches to come in a small time.

"This is why it is necessary to know everybody, to talk to the players regularly, because there is no time to make new experiences, to make a test or experiments with new players for something like that."

For now though, none of that matters with COVID 19 still in the air.