The performance of the Nigerian home-based Eagles at the recently concluded African Nations Championship (CHAN) in Morocco has got everyone one talking following the massive loss to the host in the final. The team’s assistant coach Imama Amakpakabo had an exclusive chat with our correspondent Amos Joseph – who was in the Maghreb nation for the championship. The gaffer spoke on the challenges, and how they were overcame, choices of players, youngsters, the Morocco juggernaut and many more…
The Nigerian CHAN team led by Coach Salisu Yusuf and yourself finished second position in the championship, how would describe the experience overall?
I think it was one worth the while and kudos must go to the players considering the fact that most of them are grey-hunts when you talk about international competitions, they have not had the opportunity of playing continental games, it’s a big leap for them. Most people never gave us a chance to get this far, we have been able to market the Nigeria Professional Football League in a respectable manner, to tell the world can we can actually get here. I think for a team that never played any international friendly before the tournament I think they deserve some kudos.
Let us recall the first game in Tangier against Rwanda, it ended goalless. A match the Eagles should have won; can you share what you think happened on the day?
Let us not forget that the very first game most of these players played on grass was about 3-4 days before the commencement of the tournament. They had to get used to understanding the behavior of the ball and grass pitches. Most of the players traveled with shoes that were meant for artificial grass which is the kind of pitches they play on in the league back home. It was a new and tough experience for the players. I think the depth and strength of a team is when you can show that in such tough situations you don’t lose, and they were able to exhibit that.
Coach, it was freezing on the day, would you say the weather was also a factor?
Like I said, most of the players have not had travel experiences let alone playing in the cold. But when you mention these factors sometimes, you get criticized for trying to make excuses for your loss. We laugh at it and discuss all of these things internally, but you cannot take away adjustment to change in terms of acclimatization to the weather, getting used to food and time. In a whole sum, these factors contribute to the outcome of the match. For instance in the final, we played on a pitch we never trained on, unlike the host who had played all their matches on the same ground. The best we had was walk around on the pitch a day before the match. It also rained seriously. It was a big learning for us anyway.
In the next group games against Libya, Equatorial Guinea and going forward into the knockout phase what was the motivation, what changed?
We simply had to dig deep. We came into a competition we had done our scouting reports, we have been able to analyze what other teams were going to present, it was really challenging for us after our first game. We needed to understand how the players will be able to adapt at that level of competition. Credit must go to them because they were able to tactically eliminate the Libyan strength. They were able to do that really well and I think that was the plus against the Libyans. They began to exhibit some self-belief, trying to build on what has been achieved in the last game. You know, they say result always bring strength into a team, they douse the doubts in the team by stepping up.
The team comprised about three young guns, Ikouwem Udoh, Sunday Faleye and Nur Mohammed, what exactly inspired this decision to go to the championship with these players onboard?
I think this is a team that we have to build; we were trying to look at the phase of the CHAN team. We come from a league where most of the key players are always running to other leagues, you have to give opportunity to players like these ones who can be role models to other. We don’t want to keep recycling players. You must keep some players in the team because of foundation; you just cannot start a team without this in mind. We wanted to also show to other young talents that we reward hard work.
Let us talk about Captain Ikechuwkwu Ezenwa injury, when he got injured in the semi-final, what went through your minds at that moment knowing how key he was to the team?
On a personal note, I sincerely felt Ezenwa had to go out for us to beat Sudan that was what I told myself. I think his departure was a blessing for the team because we had to dig deep and Ajiboye came and had some top saves which kept us in the game. Who knows, maybe if Ezenwa had been in goal we would have conceded, but all glory to God we were able to get the result.
The final, what do you think was responsible for the massive loss on the day, how did it get to conceding four goals in the match?
You know, we played against a tactically good team, don’t take that away from the Moroccans. In football, numerical advantage or disadvantage will always not count or count if the team goes on to plays the very long balls. But if you play a tactical side like they were on the day which means that the advantage they had would show. I think that was their greatest doing. When the red card came, I think it changed the complexion of the game completely because whether you like it or not when you are playing with a depleted team and the other team has higher percentage of possession logically your team must go defensive. Most of the players were scared of coming out and sat deep. We had an issue, we knew they were going to play with their full-backs; they will keep the pitch wide so we wanted to block them with our width and unfortunately for us he [Moses Eneji] had to go out, so we had a leakage. We had to do something tactically to save the situation but the disadvantage weakened our team.
How can you justify Moses Eneji’s inclusion in the starting line-up for the CHAN final match being his first game in the championship. In terms of selections, would you say these were the best legs picked from the Nigeria Professional Football League to represent the country?
I say it all the time, we come from a clime where everybody is a coach and has an opinion on who should and should not play. If I give you a piece of paper, you have a face you want to draw. At this point in time, coach Salisu Yusuf has the mantle to lead the team, and I am assisting him. So, it’s his face that he wants to draw and that is what we will see. Everybody has an opinion but the truth remains that pundits, spectators, analysts, football fans and supporters watch football from two perspectives which are; sentiments and emotions. I think that as a professional coach, I try to live beyond these two factors. What comes to my mind is results, so I must do what I think in my own opinion, at all times, will be able to give me results. I try to paint a picture of what I have in my head in terms of philosophies and ideologies I have to use my methodologies of trainings to get this result out. The man comes and says I was suppose to have chosen player A over player B. Supporters and fans get to watch the player only on match days, but I happen to train with them every other day, so I know whom to work with. It’s your opinion, your sentiment and emotions coming to play. Because I have to be professional with my choices, I will comfortably stand and defend the set of players we have selected.
Regarding Eneji, yes he came into this tournament not fully fit; well, because we have the go ahead from the medical team that he was going to be fit after may be our first game. He is a wonderful player; he played in the WAFU Cup, he was one of the outstanding players in that competition winning the MVP in one of the matches. So we considered him for the trip because he had the wherewithal to give us what we want. You know the circumstances in the final influenced the outcome of the finals but we don’t want to make excuses.