The Gernot Rohr Mandate

The Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) last month confirmed that Gernot Rohr will stay on as Super Eagles head coach.  This put paid to overwrought hysterics regarding the future of the German coach with the three-time African champions.

The hitherto cordial relationship between Rohr and his employers went downhill in the aftermath of the Eagles’ bronze-medal feat at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. There are at best conjectures for the growing disquiet – the German tactician is said to have given an ear to other African suitors – but what is certain is that the Amaju Pinnick-led NFF is not best pleased with the coach.

Interestingly, Rohr’s confirmation came days after a rather lavish rumour cited former Tottenham Hotspurs manager Harry Redknapp as favourite for the Eagles job. This was backed by reports in British media quoting NFF sources.

Miffed by the damage to its reputation and mounting anxiety for fans and players, the NFF finally announced a two and half years contract extension for Rohr. The German must have felt a sense of déjà vu, considering he snatched the job four years ago amid viral reports that former Lyon manager Paul Le Guen had been appointed. And now four years seems a long time, in light of his more stringent, if not hostile conditions for employment.

While details of the contract are yet to be officially released, it is understood that the 66-year-old coach will now have to live in Nigeria, get paid in Naira, travel to the various stadia to watch the Nigerian League and scout for local talents. In other words, he has to renounce his belief in the superiority of foreign-based players, embark on the considerably risky venture of traversing the country in search of talents while taking home a lower real income. And of course, he also has to adjust to a new assistant after former Eagles skipper Joseph Yobo was unilaterally put on the bench.

It sounds like someone has had it with the German coach, and this was made abundantly clear in the hectoring tone of none other than NFF boss, Pinnick.

Announcing the new deal for Rohr, Pinnick wrote on Twitter: “We can now focus on qualifying for the [2022] World Cup and winning the Nations Cup. In truth, these are sacrosanct and coach Rohr is aware of thee conditions.

“We are uncompromising in these goals.”

There it is – the lofty yearnings of millions of soccer-loving Nigerians put forward as ‘sacrosanct’ conditions for retaining the manager.  The hand dealt by the NFF has two ramifications for Rohr and by implication, the team. First, the terms couldn’t be clearer, leaving him with the welcome simplicity of knowing exactly what needs to be achieved. On the other hand, he knows now he’s dispensable, and this puts more strain on an already hostile environment thereby limiting his chances of succeeding.

With the deck stacked this way, it’s apposite to ask how the German navigated himself into a minefield, and if he’s become a victim of his relative success.

The Eagles have steadily improved under Rohr

There can be no debate that Rohr has been a massive step up from his predecessor, the brattish and pugnacious Sunday Oliseh. While Oliseh’s short stint comes off as a forced break for stale snack, Nigerians can rightly claim to be having a three-course meal under Rohr. For starters, the Eagles are now ranked 31st in the world, a massive 39 places up from the all-time low 70th when Oliseh absconded. Rohr snapped a run of back-to-back absences at the Nations Cup by qualifying and leading the side to a third place finish at AFCON 2019, a year after leading the side to a gallant showing at the 2018 World Cup. And perhaps most importantly, his unobtrusive style and patriarchal mien has wiped out the toxicity of the Oliseh days, ushering in a talented and harmonious group.

Thanks in no small measure to Rohr’s input, the curve of the national team is trending northward, and fans are aware of this as indicated in the sudden surge in optimism. The buzz is however somewhat dampened by the feeling that the curve is not climbing as fast as it should. And for many, this is also attributable to Rohr – whose conservative outlook is at odds with the enormous potential of the team.

Ostensibly, Nigeria performed creditably well at the 2018 World Cup, but it’s hard to shrug off the feeling that for a more ambitious side, Argentina were there for the taking in the final group phase game. It also didn’t help that ahead of the Mundial, Rohr kept hammering on the ‘difficult’ group Nigeria were drawn in – alongside Argentina, Croatia and Iceland – effectively diminishing hopes of qualification for the knockout rounds.

In the same vein, Rohr was keen to stress that the Eagles were ‘underdogs’ ahead of the 2019 AFCON, contrary to the expectations of fans and opinion of bookmakers who pegged the team as pre-tournament favourites.

The German coach has been accused of not being ambitious enough

His insecurities were evident in his team selection throughout the tournament. First, he opted to field Mikel Obi alongside Peter Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi in an ultra-defensive midfield. Then he hooked the offensive Abdullahi Shehu for the more cautious Chidozie Awaziem at right-back. The swashbuckling Samuel Chukwueze was dropped at one stage, before being restored to the side, while other exciting talents such as Henry Onyekuru and Victor Osimhen hardly got a look-in.

It may be indecorous to say this, but the bronze medal was actually cold comfort for such a fearsome side and their insatiable supporters.

Since his appointment, Rohr has shown ample tactical flexibility to dispel the notion that he is a one-trick pony. From his debut – a 1-0 win over Tanzania in an AFCON qualifier dead-rubber – to the 4-2 drubbing of Lesotho last year, he has at various times deployed the 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 5-3-2 and 4-2-3-1 formations depending on the opponents and players available.

It is however his psychological make-up that puts the handbrake on the team. Like the legendary Muhammad Ali said: “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses…long before I dance under the lights.”

The Eagles can’t be champions again if they don’t file out feeling like one, and it is the coach’s job to facilitate, and not hamper the process. Two of the greatest coaches of the modern era – Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho – are as well known for their man-management as for their tactical nous.

Strangely enough, Rohr, like most of his predecessors, has so far met the conditions given to him by the NFF. Only thing is, these conditions were often given out of a sense of desperation, leaving us with even bigger yearnings after they are met.

But it is a tad different this time around with Pinnick’s ‘sine missione’ terms. And the logical conclusion for Rohr’s acceptance – given other tough conditions – is that he is lured by the romance of possible glory with the young, super-talented side he has assembled.

It remains uncertain when football will return on the continent following the coronavirus outbreak – though it can’t be too long now seeing as major European leagues are back in action.

For Rohr though – the jury is already out. He must end Nigeria’s wait for a trophy, or end his journey with the team.

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