Golden Eaglets Coach, Emmanuel Amuneke, in this interview with SAB OSUJI reflects on the just concluded CAF U-17 Championship in Niamey, Niger Republic. He says the team achieved its World Cup target, adding that the team can shock the world in Chile…
Let’s talk about the U-17 Championship, how did it go?
I think it went well. First, the objective of going to the championship was to try as much as possible to ensure that we qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile later this year. In that respect, I can say yes, it went well because we achieved our major objective of ensuring Nigeria qualified for the World Cup. Of course, I can say it was unfortunate we could not play in the final in Niamey and possibly lifting the cup, not even the third place or bronze medal. That was because of our defeat by South Africa and Guinea respectively. But of course, it was a lesson for us. It’s now a pointer that we really have to work very hard to correct weak areas we noticed in our team and then prepare very well for the World Cup coming up in Chile.
Before you left for the Championship, you said your primary target was to secure a World Cup ticket and that lifting the trophy would be a bonus. In that respect, can you beat your chest and say the Niamey Championship was a success for the Golden Eaglets?
The objective of all the eight teams that went to Niger was to be among the four teams that will represent the continent at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile. We’re grateful to God that we’re among the four teams that will be in Chile for the World Cup. By October this year, we’ll be in Chile representing the African continent. When you qualify and have the privilege of playing in the semifinal then your next objective becomes to play in the final. But as it turned out, we were unable to do that. All the same, God knows why we could not reach the final.
Were you disappointed that the team did not match the potential Nigerians expected of them considering the fact that before the tournament, the team did not lose any single match?
Of course, any coach or any team will be disappointed when you lose a game. This is a team we built on trust, hard work and commitment with every player giving his best at the tournament but we have learned from that. I would say the players gave their best. Unfortunately, there’s no player who had the privilege of playing in the semifinal that would want to lose but we’re not able to do that stage. When you play in the semifinal of a tournament and you hit the bar four times and had several scoring chances but the ball refused to get into the net, then you begin to look at it from the perspective that perhaps, that’s how God has destined the journey to be. For me and the boys too, we would have loved to win the trophy but we have to be grateful to God for what we have and hope that we get better before the World Cup.
You apologized to Nigerians when the team came back from Niger but would you say the team enjoyed the best of preparation and welfare going into the competition?
I keep saying that change does not come so easily. When there is a change, it has to affect other areas either negatively or positively. We got to camp in December last year, we saw quite a good number of players we could take to Niger, unfortunately something happened but I believe tomorrow will be better. Whatever happened, maybe that’s how God wanted it so it’s a challenge for us to know there’s still a lot of work to be done. If we can recognize all these factors and accept them, they will give us the opportunity to move forward.
We learned Niger Republic lodged a protest to CAF over the eligibility of one of your players, Kelechi Nwakali, can you give us clear picture of what really transpired?
Yes, they may have mistaken Kelechi Nwakali for Chidiebere Nwakali not knowing that Chidiebere is the younger brother of Kelechi who was part of the team last two years. Of course, CAF was there because there was no player who took part in the competition that did not scale through CAF’s eligibility scrutiny. So anybody who questioned Chidiebere Nwakali’s eligibility was wasting his time and that had no basis at all.
Away from the African Championship, we’re now looking forward to the World Cup in Chile, what’s your immediate plan?
This team is a work in progress. My immediate plan is to go round the country and look for some talents who can come in and augment what we have on the ground. This is the decision we, the coaches, have taken. I’ll be going round the South West, South East and South-South zones where players from different football academies will come together at a specific centre and play against each other. If we notice any talent, we will take him and see what he can bring to the team. My assistant, Abubakar Baleira, is also doing same in the Northern zone of the country, so by the time we regroup for the final phase of preparation for the World Cup; we’ll call these players together and take a closer look at them. It’s a continuing process. Even if we win something, it does not mean the job is over, no it continues. In Chile, I believe we’ll all have something to rejoice and thank God for but before then, we have to continue to work hard towards correcting areas that needed to be worked on and encourage ourselves towards the drive to improve the team.
Is that part of reason why you’re in Ibadan?
Of course yes. We are trying to look at academy players from Ekiti, Oyo, Kwara, Ogun, Ondo and Osun states. We want to see the players and see if we can spot anyone to add to what we already have.
You have passed through this process before. So what’s your assessment of the players you have seen so far?
So far so good, on Saturday morning I watched a couple of games in Ibadan, and I was able to spot some talents. We also did same on Sunday before moving to Asaba and Owerri respectively.
Two years ago you were an assistant coach. Today, you are in charge of the U-17 team and this is an area that is regarded as the most critical aspect of our national team building. So what’s the pressure or challenge like?
In every aspect of life, there are bound to be inconveniences and all of that. There are always factors that govern or influence what you do. The most important thing for us as national team coaches is to see how our players develop. And especially at the junior level as we try to see how they grow up to the senior national team and continue to give back to the society what they have learnt. Of course, you can’t please everybody; this is the stark reality of life. We can’t please everybody in this category (U-17), there are a lot of factors. You may spot a good player but next is for you to check properly if such player has any issue. Such issues like the MRI that is now involved and which ultimately determines the player’s eligibility. But we will continue to reach out to the youths, we will continue to encourage them and we’ll continue to make them realize that they are the future of this country as far as football is concerned. They should understand that it is only God that is doing it for them. Beyond what God is doing to the youths, we must also look at them in their eyes and tell the truth which sadly people don’t always like hearing but it must continue to be told.
You were accused of trying to frustrate Kelechi Iheanacho’s career, how true is this and how do you feel about it?
I don’t have to feel anything about it, not even about his father. Sometimes these things happen out of ignorance. People just talk about things they don’t know anything about. What we do is to encourage these players so I don’t need to exchange words with anybody. Like I always say, time heals all wounds. Now the reality about Iheanacho is beginning to manifest. People are now getting to know the reality so my prayer for him and his family is to grow well.
Casting your mind back to the genesis of the whole thing, can you tell us what really happened?
Nothing happened. I don’t want to go back to all that again. I’ve talked about that in the past and I don’t want to talk about it again. All I can do now is to wish him and his family all the best in his career.
Coach, who is your career influence in coaching?
Well, well, well, yeah (Pep) Guardiola, I was privileged to have worked under someone who worked under Jose Mourinho, his name is Jose Murriah. I was privileged to work under him in Saudi Arabia as his assistant. I learnt a lot from him, I learnt coaching is not just coaching. Things have to be well organized and structured, and of course things have to be implemented. Yes, I can say he inspired me and gave me a lot of hopes and options.
Which match was most memorable during your playing career and why?
I can’t really say because I played a lot of games in my career. Even when I went to Egypt, from there to Spain and all of that, I played many matches. Every moment of my life, I appreciate it. I don’t really single out any match as my most memorable, even in difficult times, I try as much as possible to appreciate every moment of my life.
In 1994, you scored the two goals that earned the Super Eagles the AFCON trophy in Tunisia. Before that final match you were not playing and coming from the bench to make that huge mark, don’t you consider it as the brightest spot of your career?
Well, you may be right but I think I was only doing my job as a player in a team. In a team of 21 or 22 players in which you as a player know that everyone is good so all the 11 players on the pitch are good. So getting the opportunity to play in the final match for me was a privilege.
Being part of the team, I contributed my quota and at the end of the day, we won the cup so I was happy and everybody was happy. It was a good moment but like I said, I’ve passed through good moments and I have also passed through difficult moments and I appreciate all the moments. I was what I was in the team because of the challenges I met there.
But why were you not playing before that final match?
Because those who were playing were better than me at that particular time.
Not that there was any rift between you and anybody in the team?
No, there was nothing like that. It was just that those who were playing at that time were better than me.
Two years after, that was in 1996, during the Atlanta Olympic Games, you also scored the winning goal in Nigeria’s 3-2 win over Argentina. Was that also by coincidence?
I don’t know, maybe was how God wanted it to be, believe me. Because I can remember in our first match against Japan, I was struggling because I had a tear injury. I remember that morning that Coach Jo Bonfere came to me and said people were complaining that I was not playing well and that this is final whether I would like starting from the bench. So I said whatever role he wanted me to play, I was ready. I did not put personal interest first but that of the team and the country first. May be God used that to reward me for being honest.
What did you do with the money you got after the World Cup in 1994?
First, I had to take care of my family. I have parents, brothers and sisters. Of course, I have my own life to live so I had to buy a house with it too. For me, I don’t like talking about those things but I’m grateful to God for giving me the opportunity and platform. I’m still grateful to Him for what He has done for me and I hope He’ll do more.
Where did you buy the house, Lagos, Aba, Owerri or Abuja…
I don’t know, I don’t know.