Former Super Eagles defender, Friday Elaho believes in this interview with BAMIDELE BOLUWAJI, that the duo of Flying Eagles stars Kelechi Iheanacho and Taiwo Awoniyi have what it takes to be promoted to the senior national team, after the FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. The USA ’94 World Cup hero also warns Coach Stephen Keshi to learn from the past and ensure Nigeria qualify for the 2017 African Cup of Nations.
Having played the game of football to the FIFA World Cup level, how will you assess Nigerian football today?
Yes, I am glad you recognize that, I have experience in the game and I can tell you that what is happening in Nigerian football today is positive, with the organization of the domestic league, though there are some errors present here and there, but you still have to give the FA kudos for what they have been able to do so far.
Coach Stephen Keshi has been re -appointed as the Super Eagles coach, after he failed to qualify Nigeria for the 2015 African Cup of Nations. Do you have confidence in him with regards to the 2017 AFCON?
For me, I want to say that I have confidence in Stephen Keshi having played the game to the highest level in his career, though he failed to qualify Nigeria for the 2015 African Cup of Nations but that does not mean he cannot do it again. Aside playing the game before, he has also won the tournament and now that he is back, I think we have to wait and see what he is going to offer this time around. He needs a second chance to prove what he can do in the team.
Why do you think it is difficult for the coach to produce the kind of team Nigeria had in 1994?
I will say it is a bit difficult for the coach to produce the kind of team we had in 1994 because when you look at the league presently, it is not up to the standard it should be, even though it is a bit average, we need a league where you see real talented players who will be natural like we had then. The situation in the league today is that every player wants to play abroad and so they are not ready to spend some years in the local league like we did, so that they can learn the basics of the game. And if you look at the professional players we have abroad, not all of them are playing regularly and in such a situation, it will be difficult for them to grow in the game. And you must also understand that lots of things have changed and this could make it difficult for any coach, even Keshi to produce that kind of 1994 team.
Nigeria will be playing Chad next month in a 2017 African Cup of Nations qualifier and he has called up home based players to start up the camp. To what extent do you think this move will help Keshi to realize the dream of featuring in the edition?
He has taken the right step because it is important for him to win the first match and to me, starting the camp with home based players, is good for what he wants to achieve. This will also allow the players to blend on time and also help the coaches to know the fitness level of each of the players he has in camp. By the time the foreign based players would arrive in camp, he would have known the areas he needs to improve on before the match.
How would you rate Chad and how do you expect the Super Eagles to handle them?
Personally, I will rate Chad as big as Nigeria and other great football nations because football has gone beyond underrating any team. That was the problem the Super Eagles had the other time they failed to qualify for the Nations Cup, but I am sure they have learnt from that and will make necessary corrections when the qualifiers start next month.
Looking at the circumstances surrounding Keshi’s return, don’t you think he could still have problem with the FA in future?
Keshi knew what he went through before he got the job even though he had all the qualifications to be the coach but politics was still involved and I am sure that he would have learnt a lot from that and also learnt how to relate with FA, so that there won’t be any clash between them. He needs to mobilize other coaches in the team to make sure that they come up with sound programmes that will help the team to be strong.
Would you agree with people who are saying the likes of Flying Eagles Taiwo Awoniyi, Kelechi Iheanacho and a few others are too young to play for the Super Eagles?
Not at all, I don’t think so, once a player is good, he is good and you can’t take that away from him. Rooney was 17 years old when he started playing for England and if you remember what Westerhof was doing when he was our coach, you will understand that he gave considerations to the young players and that is why you saw many of them in the national team then.
Iheanacho, Awoniyi and few of them can be in the senior national team but the coach needs to have confidence in them and also be ready to work with them. Coaches don’t just invite players anyhow, you must see potentials in them and see reasons why they need to be invited, but I think these two players can play for the Super Eagles now. Is it compulsory that they play for the team immediately they are invited? They can be called upon to understudy the senior players and from there get ten minutes or few more minutes to play and from there, they will eventually mature.
In a few days, the FIFA U-20 World Cup will kick off in far away New Zealand. How far do you think the Flying Eagles can go?
Well, looking at what they have done at African level, I think they have the quality to go far in the tournament but course, we all know that playing at that level is different from the level we have seen them, which is African Championship, I think they need to play to instructions and make sure they don’t underrate any of their opponents at the World Cup.
Nigeria will play Chad next month, what are your expectations from the Super Eagles?
It has to be winning their games, starting with Chad, because of what Keshi passed through the other time and he must be ready to work hard to make sure that what happened to him in 2015, does not repeat itself. This can only happen if he works very hard and also calls players who can get the job done for him.
Do you think that calling players from places like China and other less known football playing nations is the best for the Super Eagles?
I really don’t see anything bad in inviting players from a place like China, what is important is that the player or players must have good qualities to play in the senior national team and must be ready to give their best. We seem to forget things so soon, when Westerhof was here back then, he was inviting players from lower division clubs in Belgium and they all delivered. So why are we criticizing Keshi now? Once the players are good, I don’t have problems with that.
Do you see Nigeria qualifying for the 2017 African Cup of Nations?
Yes, Nigeria will be there but we all need to support Keshi and the team. We all have a role to play to make sure that it works and we must make sure we beat Chad well in the first match, so that the confidence to continue will be there.
Away from football, you are still looking very handsome after your playing career, what is the secret?
Well, I want to thank God for that. The secret is just the discipline I give to myself. Aside not playing football at the Super Eagles level, I still play All Star every weekend to keep fit. It has really been nice trying to make ends meet.
What is the support like from the family?
The support is good and for now, I am a coach with PZ team and the job has been progressing with their support.
Would you like any of your children to play football?
Why not? I can’t force any of them to play football, it has to do will interest but I will definitely support any of them who comes up with the idea of playing football.
Finally, what is your advice for Nigerian players?
They should be focused and always ready to give their best to the country.