By Prince Etim
When the Super Eagles of Nigeria face Argentina in their crucial Group D match, all eyes would be on the managers in charge of the sides- for different reasons. Argentina’s heavily tattooed coach Jorge Sampoli is believed to have totally lost control of the dressing room as his players openly defy him. In the other dugout will be Coach Gernot Rohr of Nigeria, a demure character in whom all Nigerians trust will deliver the goods on the day.
In just twenty-two months since he was given the task of taking Nigerian football to the highest stage possible, he has become quite popular among the fans, and for good reason.
For eight years, the 65 year old German national has worked exclusively with African national football teams. Before taking over the reins of managing the Super Eagles, he had worked as coach of the Gabonese national football team. After that, he spent two years in charge of Niger Republic and had a one year stint with Burkina Faso. Perhaps his extensive experience with African sides was why he was selected by Nigeria’s football head, Amaju Pinnick. The mandate was clear- qualify Nigeria for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and have a good outing. Well, he led the team through the qualifiers and did so with one game to spare. Nigeria turned out to be the first African country to qualify for Russia 2018. As he immersed himself in the Nigerian system, he also studied our proclivities- and banned his players from eating food like pepper soup and isi-ewu.
He also seems to be quite popular among the players as they all conduct themselves in an admirable manner, on and off the pitch. But Coach Rohr has not been without criticism- the Super Eagles failed to win all of their three friendly matches before the competition started- one draw against Congo and two consecutive losses against England and the Czech Republic. His worst performance as manager came in the opening match with Croatia that saw Nigeria lose 2-0. Fans took exception to his tactics and were loudly critical, as football fans can be.
However, he turned it around in the second game and Nigeria won Iceland comfortably.
In the history of Nigerian football, there is only one other manager that has adapted to the country as much as Rohr has- Clemens Westerhof who coached Nigeria between 1989 and 1994. He led the Super Eagles to their 1994 African Cup of Nations win and to their first appearance in the World Cup at USA ’94.
Westerhof totally embodied the Nigerian spirit and is credited for rebuilding the team for modern football. A number of the most successful stars Nigeria has had – such as Daniel Amokachi, Jay Jay Okocha, Kanu Nwankwo and many others- became world-renowned stars while playing under him. Although he resigned his position immediately after Nigeria’s exit in the second round, his legacy endures till date.
Although there’s a 13 year age difference between Westerhof and Rohr- as well as the former being Dutch- there are similarities in how Nigerians have accepted them. Apart from Bonfere Jo who won the 1996 Olympic gold medal for the football team and second place at the 2000 African Cup of Nations- none of the other foreign managers Nigeria has had captivated the fans like Rohr.
As he leads the team out against Argentina for a place in the round of 16, it is hoped that it won’t be for the last time. Nigeria is united behind the players and whatever the result is, perhaps what the Nigerian team needs is stability, like the five-year spell Westerhof had many years ago.
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