Nigeria's recent impressive performances have fans dreaming of World Cup glory. Coach Gernot Rohr spoke to DW about the importance of discipline and why the "Super Eagles" don't need a star like Egypt's Mo Salah.
DW: Nigeria dominated in World Cup qualifying and won a friendly against two-time World Cup champions Argentina despite falling 2-0 behind . Will we see the same strong Nigeria at the World Cup in Russia?
Gernot Rohr: If you can do it in a friendly, you start to believe that you can repeat it in a competition. So we are confident, but we're keeping our feet on the ground and telling everybody in Nigeria: "Don’t forget that we are the youngest team in the competition."
What is the atmosphere like in Nigeria at the moment?
Everybody is happy. When we qualified in October in Zambia there was a huge celebration across the country. The joy was so amazing that we couldn't leave the stadium for a few hours because the people wanted to celebrate with us. It was wonderful to see.
Are these strong emotions a motivation or a burden ahead of the World Cup?
There is constant pressure on the players who play in England, Germany or in other countries in Europe. It is certainly greater playing for Nigeria because there are 200 million people who want you to win. But I think we showed in the qualifiers that in important games we can handle the pressure. Now we’re playing against Croatia [in our first game] and they, as the favorite, will have the pressure. We are the outsiders.
You said that the "Super Eagles" will need to be disciplined to make it out of the group stage. Is that what Nigeria hired you for?
The African style of football is all about improvisation and creativity, but also sometimes involves forgetting about discipline and defensive organization. I’m German and French, so I think that discipline is part of my mentality, and I can try to teach that especially to the young players: Being on time and not being too late to bed, for example. Simple things.
We are lucky that half the team has grown up in Europe so they've already had an education when it comes to defending set pieces. They've also learned about tactical discipline and how to play for the team instead of themselves.
Otto Pfister, the former coach of Cameroon, Togo and Ivory Coast, recently told DW that the Super Eagles were "too hot blooded" to make it far in the World Cup.
What does hot-blooded even mean? We have players coming to us from different countries. From Turkey, from Italy, from Spain, from England, from Germany and from Nigeria so they bring with them very different mentalities.
We have nothing to lose. If we don't get out of the group, it is not because we are too hot-blooded, but because the other teams are playing better football. For me it makes no sense to look for other reasons.
You said that there are no stars in the Super Eagles' squad. What would you give to have a Nigerian Mohamed Salah?
I think it's fantastic for Egypt to have such a player, just as Argentina have (Lionel) Messi or Croatia have (Luka) Modric. But we have a good team spirit instead. It is not the individual quality, even if that quality is huge, that will make the difference, but the best team spirit. This is more important than having one Mohamed Salah.
More than 90 percent of your players play their football outside Nigeria. How difficult is it to create such a good spirit?
I don’t need to create that. We already have a good team spirit because everybody is happy to come and to play for Nigeria and to represent the green and white colors. And on the field we keep it simple. There's usually not much time for preparation so I use simple tactics that all the players can understand no matter which club they play for.
Do you see a Nigerian national team made up of Nigerian club players anytime in the future?
We already have two or three players from Nigerian clubs in the team. And our CHAN (Championat d'Afrique des Nations - African Nations Championship) team, which is made up of local players only, made it to the final in Morocco.
On the other hand, the clubs in Nigeria are not good enough to produce a whole team of players that could compete with players who have been trained in Europe.
Will that ever change?
For this the clubs would need better infrastructure. They don’t have good pitches, they don't have modern stadiums and they don't have youth academies. Right now, the national team can only play in Uyo or in Port Harcourt — we can't even play in Abuja because there is no suitable pitch. We need to progress in this respect.
Is it about time for an African team to win the World Cup?
I hope that an African team will one day win the World Cup. The teams everywhere are working on it. In Nigeria we want to avoid the organizational mistakes of the past. For example, we reached an agreement with the officials about players' bonuses and allowances so we shouldn't be having any more last-minute discussions affecting games. We can now focus on our matches.
We want to win of course, but if we don't win because the other team is better, it won’t be a tragedy. Let's try to grow. We have the youngest team at the competition and we will learn. Whatever happens, it will be a wonderful World Cup.
Gernot Rohr, 64, is a former defender, who played for Bayern Munich, Waldhof Mannheim and Kickers Offenbach. However, he spend the bulk of his playing career with French side Bordeaux, where he was part of the team that won three Ligue 1 titles in five years in the 1980s. After ending his playing career in 1989, he turned to coaching, starting with Bordeaux. He has been working in Africa since 2010 and has been Nigeria's coach since 2016. The German-born Rohr also holds French citizenship.
The interview was conducted by Philipp Barth