As the 16th edition of the FIFA U-17 World Cup kicks off today in Chile, former Nigeria defender, Ben Iroha, says the the Nigeria team, Golden Eaglets can shock the World by reaching the final. In this exclusive interview with Completesportsnigeria.com's SAB OSUJI, Iroha also reveals that Austin Jay Jay Okocha is the most skilled and talented Nigerian player, adding that Okocha could have won the FIFA Ballon D’Or if he was an European. Excerpts…
Welcome back to Nigeria, coach Ben Iroha.
When did you return?
I came in about four or five days ago.
And how was your visit to the United States of America?
USA is good; there was no problem as at the time I left. Everybody is just struggling to survive; (smiles).
Ben you played football at the top level; won the Nations Cup in 1994. You have also coached all the four levels of the national team, Super Eagles, U23, U20 and U17. You also won the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Korea 2007. Now the Nigerian U-17 national team, Golden Eaglets, are in Chile to defend the U-17 World Cup they won two years ago in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, UAE. Can Emmanuel Amuneke's mission in Chile be possible? Can Nigeria become the first country to win the trophy back-to-back?
To be honest with you, I've not been in the country for some-time now. I have not watched Amuneke's Golden Eaglets team; that's the gospel truth. But having not watched the team does not change anything as regards my view on what is going to happen in Chile. We don't have problems with the U17s because the talents are just too much, we have gifted players with pace. The Europeans and the South Americans cannot cope with our pace. But the problem is; what happens next after the U-17s? How do we harness these players’ talents and groom them for the U-20s, U-23s and then Super Eagles? That is the only problem I have. For these players to make their names at the U-17 World Cup is never a problem. I have no problems that these boys will reach the finals but what happens after the finals or even when they might have won the Cup? Would they disappear just like that? No consistency, no development program, these are the only areas I'm worried about.
Are you saying the history of the U17 World Cup will be rewritten in Chile as regards the defending Champions running back home with the trophy?
After the first game, I will tell you whether they will retain the trophy or not. For now, I've not watched the team play but all I know is that given the huge talents we have here and the pedigree of Amuneke's coaching credentials, I foresee the team playing in the final.
Did you watch the Super Eagles versus Indomitable Lions of Cameroon international friendly match played in Belgium on Sunday?
Yes, I did; it was very interesting, much better than the earlier game against DR Congo.
So what can you make out of the team's performance and result on the night against a strong team like Cameroon?
I would say that after the game against Congo which was not really impressive, they talked to themselves to raise their game. This is because, if it comes down to squad, I must say we have it, if its personality, we also have it and if it comes down to skill, we have that too. We also have a new coach, a very good coach for that matter. So they must have talked about the game and said no, we must have to go all out and defend this country especially given the rivalry between Nigeria and Cameroon. Bearing in mind that they didn't play well against Congo and wouldn't want to go down twice in quick succession, they came out very strongly to destroy Cameroon. One would say they defeated a 10-man Cameroon but then, they were one goal up before the red card. They could have even scored more goals. It was a good game as far as I'm concerned. I was very impressed with their performance and I really hope they continue with that attitude.
That's interesting coach, but could that be the turning point for the Super Eagles?
Well, it could be, anyway, but there should be consistency. They should be consistent with this kind of performance. You don't just play a game but you do it for a whole season. You don't just play well against Cameroon and put up a 30% performance in the next game, no, that's not the Nigerian way. You must put up 100% plus in every game, that's the only way they can keep up that name, Super, I mean that's the only way the Eagles would become Super again.
Some would argue that there is always a sharp difference between friendly and competitive games. Do you think they can replicate such form in competitive games?
For me, I don't believe in branding games friendly or competitive. As a person, a former player and now a coach, I believe a game is a game. All the players out there on the pitch are there to defend their careers and their different countries. The Indomitable Lions were there on the pitch defending Cameroon while the Eagles were defending Nigeria. If Cameroon play the way they played in Belgium in a competitive game that day, the Super Eagles will still beat them. The Cameroonians didn't play well and Nigeria, I mean the Super Eagles really came out to play. That's why I said a game is a game, whether it is a friendly, Nations Cup qualifier or even a World Cup game. You are out there to defend your country and once you do that well, you make yourself happy.
That 3-0 win was the 9th time Nigeria would defeat Cameroon in as many as 20 games between the two countries. Cameroon on their part won about four times over Nigeria while the other games ended in draws. Statistics they say, do not tell lies. Could this be a measure of Nigerian superiority over Cameroon in football?
That day (the game in Belgium) was our day; I must say because we got everything we did on the night right. I must also say that in recent times, Cameroon have not been producing good players any more, as was the case in the past when they had the likes of Samuel Eto'O, Oman Biyik, Roger Milla, Thomas Nkono and the rest. Like I said, that day was our day because everything worked well for us, everything we did on the pitch we got right, maybe another day could be theirs. If you watched the game closely, Cameroon could have easily scored two goals after we scored our first goal. They could even have been 2-1 up before half time because twice there were pull outs that needed just a tap-in but they missed them all. That's why I said on another day, it could have been their day and I won't say more than that.
As a coach, what new aspect do you think Sunday Oliseh has brought to this Super Eagles?
Honestly, I would say I'm seeing the same Super Eagles team. I've not seen anything new. We're waiting for changes including in the area of consistency. But you don't just rush into such expectation. He's just new to the team, let's wait till he's about one or two months old with the team. We must be patient and supportive as he carries out his assignment. Rome was not built in a day. You don't build a team in one or two months. Yes, it’s still the same set of players as we saw during the reign of Stephen Keshi except, perhaps for the goalkeeper, Carl Ikeme. It is still the same tactics as well, against Congo I didn't see any passion on the part of the players but against Cameroon, the boys came out to play; and at the end Nigerians were happy. So I would say, let's maintain that tempo and see what happens in subsequent games. Honestly, my thought is that you cannot judge Sunday Oliseh with just one or two games, even five games are not enough to judge a coach. You can only judge a coach with a full stretch of the season. So let's keep watching and supporting him.
Oliseh has unveiled a new goalkeeper for the Super Eagles in the person of Carl Ikeme, who has become the beautiful bride among Nigerians at the moment. What is your assessment of the goalkeeper so far?
To be honest with you, before I came back a few days ago, I never knew who this guy, Carl Ikeme, was. I was asking people, who is this guy? I was thinking about (Daniel) Akpeyi or any other goalkeeper from the domestic league. But against Cameroon I saw him make a beautiful save, a super save in the second half and he really got hurt after that save, that means he stretched everything. So I must say we love competition. It has been only Enyeama in the last 13 years. Whenever Enyeama got injured, we fret, we don't have confidence in the other goalkeepers. So this (Carl Ikeme's emergence) is good for the country. Also I hope every issue between Oliseh and Enyeama is finally settled so that Enyeama can still come back because you don't throw away a legend like that, it's not how it is done elsewhere.
Even if Enyeama does not change his decision to quit international football, can't we beat our chest and say we've got a good replacement in Carl Ikeme?
I don't judge a player or goalkeeper with one match performance. There are still a lot of games coming. Vincent Enyeama was there for 13 years, very consistent. There were games that it was Enyeama versus that team. In the match against Argentina during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, it was Enyeama versus Argentina. The result could have been 10-0 against the Super Eagles but Enyeama's heroics kept the scoreline as low as 1-0, that means he made nine saves in the game. Yes, Enyema is a special goalkeeper, so I cannot judge Ikeme with one game, let us watch him more as he settles down to his new environment of coming to the senior national team for the first time.
You must have heard all the different accounts of what transpired between Coach Sunday Oliseh and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama in the Super Eagles camp in Belgium. You must also have heard and read how NFF waded in to resolve the issue. You are an ex-international and a coach, how would you have handled the situation?
Well, if I were in Sunday Oliseh's shoes, I wouldn't have thrown Enyeama away, I wouldn't have asked him to go home. I would have asked him to stay in the camp but this other guy would play, simple. He did nothing wrong to go and bury his mother. Maybe there was a communication breakdown somewhere along the line that caused this problem. We are all Africans and know that anything about death is always very sensitive. If that was the reason why he reported late to the camp. But for as long as he made an effort to be in camp despite the fact that he was grieving, that alone could have made the coach to say let me leave this guy to remain in the camp. He doesn't have to play Enyeama but to let him be in that group because being in that group will give him happiness. That's my thought on that.
But Ben, that didn't appear to be the major issue based on the different accounts of the two parties. From what the coach and goalkeeper said, what was the bone of contention was really the change in captaincy of the Super Eagles from Vincent Enyeama to Ahmed Musa.
If that was the problem, then Vincent got it all wrong. He should be blamed. Let's face it, this is a new regime, Oliseh's a new coach, he has the right, every right, to change his captain. He doesn't have to consult you; he owes you no apology or explanation. That is all I think because every coach has the right to choose who he wants to lead his team. He is the boss and determines who captains his team; he has the right to do that.
What is your take on how the NFF President and his two vice Presidents went to Belgium to thrash out the issue? Are you comfortable with that?
Yes, very comfortable. You know Oliseh is a new coach so he needs peace to do this job. You can’t start a difficult assignment like this with war or disunity. You know Enyeama is loved by the people, so had that battle continued, Oliseh already made enemies from Enyeama's fans who are all over the place. So what the NFF did was perfectly in order, wise and logical, to have restored peace between the coach, the player and the national team in general.
You were also part of the U23 Dream Team V coaching crew. Now Samson Siasia is packaging another set of players for the Africa Junior Nations Cup from where the continent's representatives in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil, will be selected. What are your thoughts on his team?
I've not also watched Siasia's team because I've been out of the country for a long time. But I never had any doubt about Siasia’s coaching ability. Even when he was not yet experienced as a coach, he took Nigeria's U-20 team, Flying Eagles, to the final of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Holland in 2005. Again, three years later, he took Nigeria to the final of the Olympic Games in Beijing, China. So, you can see his record. He is now very well experienced as a coach. When he was the Super Eagles coach, he did very well, beating Argentina 4-1, which we have never done before. I am confident he knows what he is doing and I'm convinced that if his team is well prepared, they will do a good job in the Junior Nations Cup.
Even in the face of these accolades and track records, the same U-23 team under Siasia did not do well at the recently concluded All African Games in Congo.
This is football; you don't expect to get it right all the time. Sometimes, such setbacks could be lessons for him to adjust and determine when or where next to go. Maybe if he had won the gold medal in Congo, in the euphoria of victory celebration, he may think that the team has arrived and so fail to do a proper evaluation and preparation towards the coming competition and by so doing, fail in the real one. Now this is the time for him to know the areas to adjust in his team, I mean how to fortify his team for the big one.
From what we are seeing now in the Super Eagles, can they make it to the 2017 African Cup of Nations?
Every country is playing football right now, yet Nigeria is so gifted. We've the players with the ability and now we have a new coach. What we need now is the right attitude. It's not about the coach; it is still the same team that we knew right from Stephen Keshi's era. There could be one or two changes so what we need now is a new attitude and if this is done, with Oliseh's new philosophy, why not? At this level, we don't need too much coaching; it is just information, management. When you, as a player, get to the pitch, you are on your own; you do certain things according to your own discretion. So with the right attitude, the Super Eagles will make it very easily. Without positive attitude, they won't, so it is left for them.
What are your thoughts about the coming AFCON qualifier against Egypt next month?
Egypt does not have the kind of talents that we have. The only thing they have over us is strong mentality, that's all. When they play, they play as if that was their last game, no reservation, exactly how we played during our days in the Super Eagles during the 1994 Nations Cup in Tunisia and the World Cup in USA. We played as if each game was the final game. If Super Eagles will play as if each game was the final, no team in the world can stop them.
From what you have said, it appears a battle line is drawn between mentality and talent. So which one do you think will prevail when the Super Eagles face Pharaohs of Egypt?
Mentality always prevails over talent. We have the talent so we can bring in the mentality and a combination of the two will see us through. Our players should play as if they are playing for their clubs; some do well for their clubs only to come here (to the national team) and relax. They come here and feel like kings, super stars. (Lionel) Messi, Ronaldo don't feel like super stars playing for Argentina and Portugal respectively. At FC Barcelona it’s still Messi; Ronaldo same thing at Real Madrid. They give 200% in every game, whether for club or country, competitive or friendly game. But for some of our own players, they are unchangeable super stars. During our days in the Super Eagles, if you don't play well in any game, in the next three months you don't get invitation; you sit back in your club while other players go to play for their countries. I was the best left-back for my club and country, but still, I was not comfortable, maybe, because I didn't want to make any mistake. If I did, they won't invite me for the next game. Jay Jay Okocha was the best thing that ever happened to Nigerian football. No talent is like Jay Jay Okocha in the whole World. If Jay Jay was a European, he would win Ballon D'or every time, I'm telling you. But how many games did he play during the World Cup in USA; only the last game against Italy. It's competition, no super star. That's how the coach (Oliseh) should handle these boys and get the best out of them. When Jay Jay entered the pitch in our last game at the USA '94 World Cup, the Italians were asking: who is this guy? Where did you get him from? Also Emmanuel Amuneke did not play any game until our final game at Tunisia '94 Nations Cup against Zambia and he scored our two goals. He was then playing for FC Barcelona, the biggest club in Europe at that time. He was in the Nigerian team and didn't play any game until that final match and he kind of said 'today I'm going to show this coach what I'm made of'. That's the kind of measure Oliseh should use in these boys. Don't make any player a super star. If he's not giving you 100%, let him stay in his club, simple, and give other players confidence to play.
Coach Ben Iroha, it has been nice speaking with you.
Thanks so much