Golden Eaglets coach, Emmanuel Amuneke, reflects on his team’s performance in Chile during the FIFA U-17 World Cup finals. The former Super Eagles and Barcelona of Spain winger whose goals helped Nigeria to win the AFCON in 1994 and the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Soccer gold medal tells SAB OSUJI in this interview that the Golden Eaglets surprised their detractors. He also reveals that President Muhammadu Buhari’s interaction with the players motivated them going into the final match with Mali…
Congratulations for leading the Golden Eaglets to retain the FIFA U-17 World Cup…
Thank you. I must also say congratulations to all Nigerians. It is not a victory for Emmanuel Amuneke as a person but all Nigerians and we’re grateful to God for making our dream come true.
You were an assistant coach when the Eaglets won the Cup two years ago in the United Arab Emirates, now you have retained the trophy for Nigeria. How are you savoring the victory?
It’s nice to feel the happy mood of Nigerians over the Golden Eaglets’ victory in Chile. You cannot be happier seeing smiles on the faces of fellow country men and women who stayed awake to watch and support the team during the championship. Personally, I remain a humble man, a very humble Emmanuel Amuneke. I remain humble in the Lord for what He has done for us as a team, as a nation and for the young players. I’m also grateful to Nigerians who gave me the opportunity. If they had not given me the opportunity, I don’t think we’d be where we are today. When one has a gift from God, he should use such gift to the benefit of Nigerians, the nation and its citizens. We’ll continue to do what is right. We live in a nation of 170 million citizens so you don’t expect everybody to think the way you do. But in all, what counts most is the joy of Nigerians.
Are you surprised the team won the Cup despite not winning the African Championship in Niger?
The irony of it is that Nigerians had the belief that this team was not good probably because we did not win the African championship in Niger. They forgot that our aim of going to Niger was to strive and qualify for the World Cup which we did. Unfortunately, people, including journalists who came around to watch our training sessions still held the opinion that we were not good as a team. But I must say I’m grateful to them, because without their criticism, negative or positive, probably we would not have doubled our efforts to do our very best. We thank them (our critics), we don’t see them as enemies but friends who helped us achieve our set objective. We served this country in the past as players so we are friends to the media who really made us what we are today. We cannot begin now to see them as enemies, not at all. In Chile, we would play at 8pm, which is 12midnight here in Nigeria and people would still remain awake to watch and support us. It shows the love they have for the team. I can only advise that anyone who finds himself in a position of authority should think first of the joy and happiness of Nigerians and carry out his functions with the fear of God.
Casting your mind back, which match do you remember was the toughest for your team at the championship?
Every game we played was tough. And of course you know that the important match in a championship like this is usually the opening match. So the match against USA, being the beginning of the journey was nervy. After that, I can say the match against Mexico in the semi-final was even tougher. The semi-final match is just a game to the final. It’s like getting to the Heaven’s Gate and you realize you don’t have the key. Thank God we later found the key in our pockets to open the gate. Otherwise, coming from a goal down to win 4-2 was something else and showed the resilience and fighting spirit of the players. Remember, before then, we never fell behind in our previous games. Mexico was a strong side. It was like a derby match. Two years ago in Dubai, we defeated them in our group game 6-1 and later met them again in the final which we also won 3-0. So this time around, they came for revenge. Then in the final, people wrote us off, that Mali was going to beat us because they are African champions. I read a lot of comments to this effect but man’s voice is not the will of God. In Niger, we didn’t win the Cup. We came fourth but we thank God who made it possible for us to qualify for the World Cup. If we had not qualified for the World Cup, we would not have had the opportunity to let people know we are good as a team. The good thing is that we successfully defended our World Cup trophy.
What changed in the team that finished fourth in the African Championship and the team that won the World Cup in Chile?
There was really not much that changed. The objective of going to Niger was to qualify for the World Cup. We consider the African Cup a bonus if we had won for as long as we achieved our primary objective which was to get the ticket for Chile 2015. There were lots of setbacks. Most of the players we used in the qualifying series were knocked out by the MRI test which was authorized by FIFA because we were very keen on doing what is right. We can’t stop growth; that was the positive we took from all of that. It’s all a process. Like the Israelites, not all of them that set out for the journey to the Promised Land got there. Even Moses who started the journey could not reach the Promised Land, but the objective is getting there. So when we came back from Niger, we had to embark on a fresh search for young players to strengthen the team and I’m happy the exercise paid off.
What makes you exceptionally happy that you won this World Cup?
It is the players, I used to call them ‘refugee Eaglets’. This is the truth because nobody believed in them. They lacked virtually everything going into the championship but I’m happy the players have brought joy and happiness to millions of Nigerians, I’m happy for them.
President Mohammadu Buhari has set November 29 as a date he will receive the Golden Eaglets at the Presidential Villa, Aso Rock, Abuja. What manner of reward are you expecting from Mr President on that day?
We’re grateful that we have achieved this feat. The future is what matters most. We are not setting agenda for our President. I’m happy he was the Head of State in 1985, when Nigeria won the Cup for the first time. I’m also happy he is the President who is in office for this historic victory and as his children, you don’t need to tell your father what he should do or give to you. For us, it was a privilege to talk with President, that was something special. This is a President who is determined to effect changes.
We understand President Buhari spoke with the team on Skype before the final match against Mali.
Yes, that is true. It showed he was following our games, who knows, he could as well be keeping awake late into the night to watch our games.
So what impact do you think his interaction and singing of the Nigerian National Anthem with the players made on them before going into the game?
It was a great moment. It is not often that you are on international assignment and you get to speak directly with your president, the No. 1 citizen of your country. It was a big motivation; the players, officials were touched emotionally. The motivation was great. It was as if he was physically present with us there in the stadium at Santiago, Chile.
After winning the World Cup in Chile, what next?
We have to remain focused. Nigeria can even win the Cup six, seven times or more but it depends on how we plan. Let me say this, people may not know that the group of players who will participate in the next edition of the championship will be players born in 2000. But all you see is players always struggling to move to Europe. We must always do the right things. We must always be seen to be doing the proper thing. This fire brigade approach to issues we seem to have imbibed in our system must be changed. We must plan and match our plans with concrete action. This is the kind of positive changes we are looking forward to.
What was the players’ response to the President?
They assured the President that they were going to work hard and ensure they won the Cup and they did. So we thank him and continue to pray to God that gives wisdom to those in positions of power and authority to realize that our people are suffering, for God to guide him and even the people around him, for them to have the wisdom to do their jobs for the good of the Nigerian masses.