Completesportsnigeria.com's SAB OSUJI gets former Nigeria defender, Ben Iroha talking from his base in the United States. Iroha insists Kelechi Iheanacho has not matured to play in the English Premier League, and states his reasons. He also sounds a warning note to the U-23 national team Coach, Samson Siasia, to learn from the mistakes that cost Nigeria the London 2012 Olympic Games ticket. Excerpts…
New season for the various European leagues are starting, especially the English Premier League. No fewer than five or more Nigerian players have secured contracts with clubs in Europe. The likes of Emmanuel Emenike, Ik Uche, Kenneth Omeruo and William Trost Ekong have all secured new clubs in Europe. What's your take on this?
It's nice to see many Nigerian players involved in Europe transfers because that will give them a lot of experience and confidence which will later rub off positively on our national teams. One thing is that the players must work hard to see they play regularly for their clubs. It's not about securing contracts; it's not about the size of the team or value of the deal. No, it is entirely about getting regular playing time. Much as I'm happy for them because Nigeria is blessed with lots of talents, I would insist on them commanding regular shirts in their clubs because it gives confidence which helps the player to grow in his career.
Manchester City have registered Kelechi Iheanacho in their 2015/2016 Barclays Premier League squad. Don't you see this as a rapid development for the player and a big plus for the Super Eagles?
Sincerely speaking, I'm happy for him. He is a huge talent but then I would have loved him to be sent out on loan to other smaller clubs even if it is a Championship side. While there, he will play regular football which will help him gain more confidence. Arsenal do the same with their young players who later come back to become better players. It does not matter if he was sent to clubs in Holland, Germany, France or Spain. Look at Francis Coquelin of Arsenal, he was even on loan when Arsenal found themselves in midfield crisis as a result of injuries to Mikel Arteta and Matheu Flamini. Today Coquelin has become an influential member of the Arsene Wenger’s team. So I believe Iheanacho could have been loaned out for him to play regularly and gain more experience and confidence.
Iheanacho did so well during the pre-season which was seen to be good enough to convince Manuel Pellegrini that he has potentials and quality to weather the EPL storm.
No doubt about that. The same way he dazzled during last season's pre-season games. I watched him here in the United States. There is a huge gulf between pre-season games and the Premier League proper. When the show begins, when the big boys start their displays, you will understand what I'm talking about. He is a Nigerian and I want the best for him because I was once like him, so I know what I'm talking about.
What do you think the Super Eagles stand to gain in these players’ transfers to Europe?
Experience is the best teacher, isn't it? So, when these players move out, play in Europe especially constantly play for their clubs, of course, it helps the national team and the job becomes less cumbersome for the coach. That was why during our time, though we were already doing well in our various clubs in the Nigerian league and had been with the national team for about three years before Clemens Westerhof came and pushed us – myself, Nwankwo Kanu, Finidi George, lateThompson Oliha, Chidi Nwanu, to Europe. And when we came back to the national team, the result was what Nigerians witnessed in 1994 AFCON, USA '94 World Cup down to the France '98 World Cup even though he left after the 1994 World Cup.
Are you saying new Super Eagles coach, Sunday Oliseh, should as well begin to facilitate players movement to Europe to help such players gain experience?
If Sunday Oliseh has such contacts having played and stayed for a very long time in Europe, why not? I don't see anything wrong in that so far as such players are good right from here in our league. Nigerians want the best of their players who can help the national team excel.
What is your take on the Dream Team's qualification for the CAF U-23 championship following their hard fought goalless draw with Congo in Point Noire last week Sunday?
It was a good result, it did not come to me as a surprise because I know Coach Samson Siasia well and I know also that we have the talents and quality to shock any opposition on the African continent.
There were obvious fears among Nigerians before the match that Congo Coach, Claude Le Roy could end our Rio 2016 Olympic dream?
Look, Sab, football has gone beyond that level, once you are good, you are good. And a good side can win anywhere.
Even as they say anything can happen in African football…
(Cuts in) A good team can win anywhere. Look at what is happening in Nigerian league today where a team wins 3-0, 4-0 at away. So if you have a good team and prepare very well, if the team is focused and the players imbibe winning mentality, if you like take the game to the moon they stand a good chance to win. So, I never panicked about the prospect of the U-23 team winning in Congo.
The previous crop of U-23 team failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games in London because they could not do well at the inaugural CAF U-23 championship in Morocco. What positives do you think Samson Siasia and his boys could take from that misadventure?
Look, I was a member of that Dream Team V coaching crew. I wouldn't want Siasia to repeat the mistakes we made. We relied so much on the foreign based players. But when they disappointed us because their clubs did not release them for the championship, we had to fall back on the home based players but before then, the damage had been done.
How ? What do you mean?
You see, this tournament is not in FIFA calendar. Most European teams don't fancy releasing their players for it. They are not under obligation to do so. So you find out that because we had apparently built the team around the foreign based players, we ran into trap adjusting by the time we got disappointed they were not going to release the Europe based players. So what I think Siasia should do is to build a team on equal ratio of home based and foreign based. If the foreign based are available, fine and good. But if not, then the domestic league players will do the job. No doubt Siasia is experienced having gone through the Olympic Games before, he understands the terrain and I wish the team good luck as they strive to bring glory to our dear fatherland, Nigeria.
Let me take you back a bit. You earlier used the Nigeria Premier League to give example of how unpredictable results of matches, especially in Africa can be. Does that suggest the Nigerian league has taken such a leap?
I'm a Nigerian, I played the Nigerian league at its exciting and difficult times. Even now that I'm outside the country, I've not lost touch with what is happening in the league. I follow it very well, so I can tell you the NPFL or Glo Premier League has taken a positive leap. Those behind what we are seeing now deserve kudos. So far, we have not witnessed violence around the various stadia. Games come at their scheduled times and results are available almost immediately to the point that the league is now on the online betting. I have not said we've arrived but so far, so good.
Some time ago, we read reports of you making yourself available for the Flying Eagles coaching job if called upon…
(Cuts in) Yes, as a Nigerian I will not shy away from serving my fatherland. I played for the national team, I was here in the United States of America when I was called in 2006 to come and help out with the Golden Eaglets. By 2007, we won the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Korea. I have coached in all the levels of the national teams, U17, U20, U23 and the Super Eagles.
So if I'm called upon again to serve in any capacity, why not. I'm willing and ready with all sense of humility and passion to come down to Nigeria and do that.
Finally, the Golden Eaglets are currently in camp preparing to defend the FIFA U17 World Cup they won two years ago in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Do you think they can achieve that dream?
So far, I have not seen the team, I have not watched their trainings or matches. One thing I know is that Emmanuel Amuneke is a great coach. He was part of the team that won the 2013 edition in UAE, so he knows what they did then that guaranteed them victory. He is one of the coaches I have big respect for and I wish him and his team all the best. They need the support of every Nigerian to succeed and I cannot stop praying for them.