Former Nigeria captain, Peter Rufai, tells SAB OSUJI in this interview that the Flying Eagles will break the Brazil jinx in the opening match of Group E in the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup finals.
Rufai also posits that the Nigeria U-20s can lift the trophy…
What are your thoughts on this present Flying Eagles squad coach Manu Garba and Nduka Ugbade have taken to the FIFA U-20 World Cup finals in New Zealand?
I see the team as one that can go places. They have been consistent right from the U-17 level. At that stage, we all saw what they achieved, winning the U-17 World Cup in Dubai,UAE, two years ago. Having graduated to the U-20 level too, we saw how they won the AYC title in Senegal a couple of months ago. And if you add these to their performance in Germany where they went for a three-week camping tour, won all three trial games, then you can begin to say this team can make Nigeria proud at the championship.
They will begin their campaign late Sunday night (early Monday morning) against Brazil in group E, what are your expectations?
I'm expecting victory from the team. I know they can do it because the team Manu Garba has put together, for me, is very solid. The players are hard working and individually skillful, recall Bernard Bulbwa's goal against Senegal in the AYC final, how he side-picked the ball, turned and shot right from the edge of the box. So the potentials in the team are not in doubt, their mental strength, team spirit and cohesion as well as commitment are ingredients that single out a good and ambitious side and the team has all these qualities.
Nigeria has never won this FIFA U-20 World Cup before, doesn't this fact or jinx scare you especially when they have Brazil to contend with in our group?
We have not won the Cup before but I have noticed some exceptional qualities in the team just as I said earlier. This makes me confident. Of course I believe in the technical prowess of coaches Manu Garba and Nduka Ugbade which they have proved over time. I know there is always a first time in anything in life. It is very possible.
Are you saying the team can win the World Cup in New Zealand?
First, I expect them to put up a good performance, take every opponent as a champion they just have to edge out. They should also see themselves as champions, which they are. They should knuckle down, take the games as they come, and if they do this they are bound to reach the final and once they are in the final, certainly they will come home with the Cup.
Wonderful permutation, Flying Eagles, World Champions in the making. But does it occur to you that Nigeria has never beaten Brazil at this level of World Cup championship? Don't you think this jinx may constitute a problem for the Flying Eagles?
No, they are not a threat, rather I see it as a challenge that will inspire the team. Nigeria, at whatever level of the national team, get stronger and tougher in games against perceived difficult oppositions and I can see this playing out again in New Zealand when we meet Brazil. Difficult games bring out the best in our teams and this cuts across our various national teams. I see this making the players very serious, determined and more committed to prove to the World, including Brazil, that they are not in New Zealand for sight-seeing but to defend themselves and the green-white-green jersey and bring glory to their fatherland.
Tell me what really happened that you did not play for Nigeria at the U-20 level…
Actually I was invited to the camp but school activities didn't allow me. That was in 1977. Father Tiko was in-charge of the senior national team then as well as being in-charge of the Flying Eagles. It was during the preparation for the first edition of the championship held in Tunisia. I reported to camp but had to go back to school because of examinations. I would have loved to be part of the team, especially since that was the first edition of the championship but then I chose the right path and I have no regrets about it.
Certainly you must have been sad missing out of the squad even though Nigeria did not qualify for the championship proper in Tunisia?
I would have been sad if I had missed it as a result of lack of form or non-invitation. But because I missed out based on academic pursuit which is also good as my parents advised me so I don't have any regrets at all.
Stephen Keshi has finally been restored as Super Eagles coach. What are your thoughts abouts that?
First and foremost, I've to commend the Nigeria Football Federation and Stephen Keshi as well as his manager for finally coming to an amicable resolution of the Super Eagles contract issue. I also commend all those who in one way or the other, ensured that peace reigned in Nigeria football for Super Eagles to move forward. Having said that, I must say that I'm happy over Keshi's coming back as Super Eagles coach; that's number one. Secondly, I will say that Keshi has shown a lot of patriotism to this country. As a player, he showed his patriotism to Nigeria and has repeated that now as a coach. Another coach would have opted out during the period of dispute, to take up appointment with another country even with less pay but he did stood firm and interested in serving his country. He wants to use the opportunity of his second coming to try to make up for our not qualifying for the last Nations Cup.The NFF has also done well by keeping faith with him.
Chad is Nigeria's first opponent in the 2017 AFCON qualifiers.Are you looking forward to that game in Kaduna? Is that match going to be easy for the Super Eagles?
Chad will not be an easy opponent. But I must also say that it is one match we will comfortably win. Yes, we have had our ups and downs in the game in recent times but that's not enough for anyone to think that a team like Chad will come here to trample on our Nations Cup aspirations. Of course, it is important not to underrate any opposition but Chad should not be the team to scare us. They know at the back of their minds that they are coming to play against a giant of African football, a team which has been involved in the Nations Cup for long and a team that has won the championship three times. They should be the ones to be afraid us and respect us, so I'm not afraid of them and statistics show that irrespective of the travails we have had in recent times, Nigeria football and that of Chad should not be placed on same pedestal based on the quality of players available to both countries.
What about Tanzania, an East African nation who are Nigeria's next group opponents after Chad?
Same is applicable to Tanzania. They will all come to flex muscles against the Super Eagles but determination alone is not enough and never a guarantee for victory over the Super Eagles. They will only come to try their luck but expecting victory means stretching their luck too far.
But we have had cases in the past when these underdogs defeated the Super Eagles. The most recent being Congo who defeated the Eagles in Calabar in the 2015 AFCON qualifiers. Don't you fear such may repeat itself again because this is football where even the unexpected does happen?
We lost to Congo because they had a good tactician in Claude Le Roy who knows African football and its players too well.He has all it takes to coach any team, so if you are playing against his team you don't need to say because his team is coming from a small country and not known in the game. Le Roy as a coach will be the determing factor. But in all of these, I don't have any worry whatsoever about Chad and Tanzania. However, if any of these two teams have a tactical guru like Le Roy then we should have cause to worry.
The Super Eagles are in the same qualifying group with Egypt. They have won the AFCON more than any other country on the continent. Perhaps you may have some concerns when Nigeria meet them later in the course of the qualifiers.
The Pharaohs of Egypt are not an easy side to knock down. The few times I played against them, we have had to come from behind to win or draw though we later won on penalties at some point. So I can say they are not a side to be underrated or overlooked. Egypt is a team we have to put on all our tactical thinking caps to overcome. This is where I'm calling on the NFF and the Super Eagles coaches to come together to map out a strategy that can guarantee victory for the Eagles. Egypt don't just play based on the present strength of opponents, they bring to fore past record of matches they have played against the opponents, study them and perfect their strategy. This forms part of their preparations and if on our side we can get all these facts together, then this will help the team a lot.
NFF has a technical study group headed by Austin Jay Jay Okocha, do you think they can come in here ?
For sure, it's going to help because the group is bound to bring back good news if and when they are sent to evaluate opponents strengths and weaknesses. So I think this will help also in the developmental aspects as well.
You retired from active football after the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea/Japan. Since then no one has seen your face near the national teams coaching, what's the reason?
I can only say if the authorities believe I'm needed, if they think I have something to offer the country as regards coaching, if they think I have value to add to the national team, if they know the value that I can bring to the development of Nigeria football, if they know what it means to acquire knowledge after playing career, if they really know what value and respect means they will call for those of us who possess all these qualities. But I thank God Almighty that I have been busy all this while with youth developmental programme which I thought was wise to give to my country after my career in Europe. I love the grassroot developmental programme I'm running across the nation through the support of corporate bodies and also giving seminars across the nation and abroad as well. I have also been engaged in giving youths motivational talks across the country and abroad as well as engaged in my football academy, Star-Ruf Football Academy which is managed by experts.
Tell us more about this Star-Ruf Football Academy
Well, it has to do with imparting footballing knowledge to the younger ones, for them to make a career in football and keep away from social vices. In this regard I set up an academy, STAR-RUF ACADEMY which also has a branch in Europe, Spain to be specific. It is aimed at impacting on youths that want to take football as a profession. I am an instructor in the basics of the game, I decided to set up one here in the country. I have a diploma in how to establish and manage an academy, how to coach youths and put them on the right track to pursue a career in football.
How many students or apprentice footballers do you have in Star-Ruf Academy at the moment?
We have 40 players in the senior category, we have 20 players in the U-13 category and 40 players in the U-15 category.
How do you run this academy, I mean in terms of training or do you handle the training aspect all alone by yourself?
No, Star-Ruf Academy is set up and run along professional lines. We have a management structure that has administrative manager, sports secretary and all that. In terms of coaching, coach Loveday Omoruyi is the head of coaching, he is a professional coach, my former teammate at Stationery Stores of Lagos, former national team player and has coached Gateway United, Zamfara United, Jasper United, Bendel Insurance and even coached in Benin Republic. All that I do is provide them the coaching syllabus.
How do you deal with players' urge for overseas contracts?
This is one area Nigerian parents have to really show understanding. Yes we prepare players for higher stakes in their careers especially going on trials in Europe. But then, it's not an over-night thing, we prepare them especially players in the senior team and based on their performances and form, we begin to either take them to clubs in Nigeria or Europe. Unfortunately many of them want immediate travels irrespective of whether they are good and ready enough for such trials or not. You will be wasting a lot of money taking unfit player to Europe and at the same time lowering the vault on the quality of Nigerian players as well as your academy players if you take players that don't measure up to European standards out for trials and I want parents to understand this.