The Technical Director of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), Bitrus Bewerang, has rated John Mikel Obi as Nigeria’s current best player ahead of next month’s African Cup of Nations in Egypt.
In this exclusive interview with Sunsports correspondent,
BOLAJI OKUNOLA, the former Super Eagles coach talked about Mikel’s recall to the Super Eagles, his perception on coach Gernot Rohr; how politics denied him of some enviable positions in Nigeria football; what he feels about the Super Eagles ahead of the forthcoming African Cup of Nations, as well as the secret behind his youthful look at 67.
What should Nigerians expect from the Super Eagles team under coach Gernot Rohr at the African Cup of Nations next month?
As far as I’m concern, we are on right track since we have been able to qualify for the African Cup of Nations. And that is a signal we have players who can take us to the promised land. So, definitely we are going to support Gernot Rohr. The President of NFF, Amaju Pinnick, has tried to organise Grade A friendly matches during the open windows of FIFA. With all the opportunities, the team is going to soar high in Egypt.
As the technical director of NFF, which department of the game are we lagging behind?
If you want me to answer this, that means you want me to criticise my colleagues. But, as far as I’m concerned, we are trying to make all the positions well fortified. From the goalkeeping area to the defense, midfield and attack, I think we have a lot of players around who we can still bank on.
What is your opinion on Mikel Obi’s attitude to the national team? Does he deserve a recall?
What people don’t know is that Mikel took a special permission from the technical adviser. And we were also aware he was injured at a point. These are the reasons why he didn’t play in some of the matches. It’s not that he snubbed our invitations. And you could see that for him to come back to England, he really wants to put himself in a form that would make him fit for more challenges.
Do you think the aging midfielder is still relevant to the team?
He is the captain, and by the statement of the technical adviser, he is telling him he has to work hard. So, there is nothing hidden about his chance of making the AFCON squad. One can’t just come from nowhere and get into the team without performing. So, definitely, he has to work hard to earn himself a place in the team. No doubt, he is the best player in the team, aside from him being the captain.
Do you think the team can win the African Cup of Nations like they did in 2013?
Sure, they can. The NFF board is trying to put everything in place to make sure the team soars high in Egypt. We’ve lifted the cup three times, and I can assure you we are going to Egypt to lift the trophy.
Will Rohr remain Eagles coach if he fails to win the 2019 AFCON trophy?
You don’t judge a coach by his failure. Sometimes you could rate him based on his technical performance. He has gathered quit a number of talented players. You know, sometimes, one may meet disappointment in football. So, I cannot say anything about that for now. What we should do is to keep our fingers crossed and hope we return with the AFCON trophy.
As the head coach of BBC Lions of Gboko back then, what do you think made the team go into extinction?
I left them before the team started having problems. But thank God the team is getting back gradually because some businessmen have taken over the club. I can assure you BBC Lions will bounce back as soon as possible, because the new management of the club is doing everything to make it rise again.
What are the successes and challenges you passed through before becoming the technical director of the NFF?
I’ve been coaching for more than 40 years. And within that period, I have coached lot of Premier League sides. I once coached Plateau United, BBC Lions, Wikki Tourists, Kano Pillars and NPA Warri. As a matter of fact, I was the General Manager of Plateau United for years. And, of course, one of my achievements was winning of the Challenge Cup with Plateau United after the club had tried for 45 years without winning it, even though they had reached the final 12 times. The year I won it for them was the 13th time. And, of course, as a member of the Super Eagles, I won the African Cup of Nations in Tunisia, and I also qualified them for the FIFA World Cup in U.S.A in 1994. I think it was also a great achievement. I was also the coach of the Under 23 football team that qualified for the Sydney 2000 Olympics even though I was dropped for the event proper.
What is your greatest regret as a football coach?
My saddest moment as a coach was when I qualified the Under 23 national football team for the Sydney 2000 Olympics without going with the team for the competition. It really pained me. Can you imagine yourself qualifying a team for such tournament and all you could get is to be sidelined during the proper tournament. It still pains me till today.
Why were you sidelined?
I was sidelined because of politics. Politics is a part of the game. But, I still thank God for where I am today.
Looking at the ‘94 set of Eagles, after 25 years, people still tagged Sunday Oliseh as the player behind Super Eagles early elimination. As the technical coordinator, whom do you blame for the woes?
You cannot do without making mistakes in football. And it was just a simple mistake anybody can make. Actually, Oliseh was a little bit careless. He had the ball and was dribbling in a dangerous area. If he had passed the ball to Austin Okocha we would have knocked out the Italians. Up till today, I can visualise the error. If he had passed the ball, we would have had possession of the ball for the remaining two minutes of the game. What baffled me most was that instead of him to go for the ball he lost, he was still complaining and expected the referee to side him for a tackle he lost. And by that time, our players were scattered. Before they could reorganise, the damage had been done. And we went into extra time, before we lost 2-1 to the Italians. But, we thank God we were ranked the fifth best team in the world after the tournament and the second most entertaining team and till now, that position has not been matched by anybody.
What are the success secrets behind the ‘94 team?
I give the victory to God in the first place. Hard work remains our success. The coach, Clemens Westerhof was always making sure that we were taking to the best training ground, hotels and the rest. At the end, we were able to have a team. Our players had individual skills and the coach loved teamwork. Some players like ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha, who loves individual game, cooled down and brought themselves down to his level.
At 67, how do you unwind?
I thank God who has been keeping me. When people see me, they say I’m 50 because of my young look. But, when they hear I’m 67, they say wow! I feel happy with their comments. And this is an example to the youth that if you work hard at youthful age, you will surely have a good look at old age.