By Mumini Alao
FOLLOWING NIGERIA’s AFCON semi-final 2-1 loss to Algeria last weekend in Egypt, a debate immediately ensued in traditional and social media on whether Gernot Rohr should continue on the job as Super Eagles coach. It was predictable. When a sports team are deemed by Nigerian fans not to have performed up to their expectation, the status of the coach comes under scrutiny.
I could understand the disappointment of those who wanted Rohr to be fired instantly. They love their country so much that they believe only the AFCON trophy was good enough for us. They feel that anything less than that was failure and so Rohr should go immediately. Someone even suggested that team captain Mikel Obi should take over the team in an interim capacity! There’s nothing wrong with big aspirations, but they must be matched with reality.
I decided not to join the debate at that time because I felt it was premature. The third and fourth place classification match against Tunisia was only a few days away. Why not wait for the team to finish the tournament so we could have a full post-mortem?
Yesterday (Wednesday), the classification game was played and the Super Eagles beat Tunisia 1-0 to win their 8th bronze medal at the AFCON, the most by any country. The result kept Nigeria’s record of never having lost a third place match at the competition. And, most importantly for me personally, it gave our debutant young players who formed the bulk of the squad a medal to show for their adventure. I could see the joy written boldly on their faces as they collected those medals. I was clapping for them in my living room all the way. Congratulations, lads.
Now, straight to my verdict: I give the Super Eagles a PASS MARK for their outing in Egypt. And on that basis, I do not support the clamor for Gernot Rohr’s sacking. The least we should grant him is a chance to finish his contract which reportedly has one more year to run. At expiration, we should review again and may then choose to not renew. But for now, Rohr should stay on.
The primary reason for my position is that the coach met the targets set for him by his employers, the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF. When he was newly employed, Rohr confirmed to me in an interview that an important clause stated that his contract stands automatically terminated if he failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. He delivered on that. Thereafter, the NFF set him another target to qualify for the 2019 AFCON and take the team to the semifinals at least. Again, he has delivered on that and topped it with a bronze medal. The credible thing for Nigeria as a country to do in the circumstance is to keep our side of the bargain. That is what NFF President Amaju Pinnick has done by announcing that Rohr will continue in his job. It is the RIGHT THING to do. I’m in full support.
Apart from achieving his set targets, let’s now consider how Rohr’s Eagles actually performed at the tournament. Recall that I wrote before kick-off that it was pure arrogance on Nigeria’s part to think that we MUST WIN the trophy. I predicted that the Eagles would have to practically “Cross the Red Sea” to win in Egypt because the opposition was daunting while our team wasn’t yet the finished product. I argued that there were at least six other countries with the capacity, talent and pedigree to be champions. Two of them (Algeria and Senegal) are in the final; while four others (Hosts Egypt, holders Cameroun, Morocco and Ghana) all fell by the wayside. On their good day, any of those that fell by the wayside could have reached the final.
With the benefit of hindsight now that we have seen all the teams in action, we should admit that the Super Eagles truly weren’t the overall best team in Egypt. And that admission should temper our disappointment. Our semifinal conquerors Algeria were stronger, they dominated play, created more chances and could have beaten us by a wider margin. In Football, there’s no shame if you lose to a better side. We beat the Algerians during the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and now they have beaten us back at the AFCON. We will fight them again another day. The rivalry goes on.
Talking about rivalry, I personally derived great satisfaction from the fact that the Eagles beat our bitter rival Cameroun and “prospective” rival South Africa in the Round of 16 and the quarter-final respectively. Specifically, I had demanded that the Eagles should “Die” on the pitch if that was what it took to beat the Indomitable Lions. Our boys won, stayed alive, kept our bragging rights intact against the mouthy Bafana Bafana, and then went on to win the bronze medal. What more could I ask for? Surely, it would be unfair of me to castigate the boys or join any clamour for the coach to be sacked.
Having declared my support for Rohr to continue in his job, I only wish to add that he could have been more flexible and less predictable with his team selection against Algeria. The Eagles’ attacking strengths on the wings and their defensive frailties in the centre-back positions were obvious in previous matches that it was evident that Algeria came with a plan to take advantage. Perhaps a change of formation would have given Nigeria a greater chance against them. Hopefully, the coach will learn from that.
Going forward, I see a bright future for the Eagles under Gernot Rohr. Some of his critics don’t want to hear this, but the fact is that the coach came after we had failed to qualify for two AFCONs back to back (2015 and 2017). We were down and out but now, he has put us back in contention in African football as third best at the 24-team event.
The main positives from AFCON 2019 for me is the blooding of so many young players like Wilfred Ndidi, Samuel Chukwueze, Ola Aina, Jamilu Collins, Alex Iwobi and Oghenekaro Etebo who all played pivotal roles in Egypt. If we’re patient enough for these players to grow and mature in the Super Eagles, a great national team will blossom in the near future.
For now, let’s salute team captain John Obi Mikel who has drawn the curtains on his international career, for his long years of national service at under-20, under-23 and senior, winning medals for us at every level.
And I say congratulations to Odion Ighalo, the AFCON 2019 highest goals scorer and Golden Boot winner-designate with five goals.