Super Eagles manager Salisu Yusuf spoke to us after Friday’s 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying draw in Cairo.
The Nigerians will be pitted against Africa’s most highly rated team Algeria, five-times continental champions Cameroon as well as potential dark horse, Zambia… Group B has already been christened ‘the group of death’. Here he is on qualifying for the Mundial and Nigeria’s chances looking ahead to kick off in October.
Coach, your team got the easiest draw *sarcasm*, do you already see yourself in Russia?
(Laughter) Well, the draw has taken place and cannot be reversed but I’ll tell you one thing, that it is one hell of a group because you have Algeria, Cameroon and Nigeria. They are all heavyweights on the continent and will be eyeing a spot for Russia.
People are talking about Algeria’s amazing team with the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Cameroon’s long-standing rivalry with Nigeria on the pitch. And don’t you think Zambia might surprise everyone like Leicester City?
That was what I was just telling someone before we started this interview. Zambia have got an amazing side and always look hungry whenever they play.
The Zambians also pose the same share of threat.
People are fixated on the big names but I tell you that the Zambians also pose the same share of threat as the others.
Do you still think you could qualify Nigeria to their third straight Mundial considering the hurdles before you. What happens if you don’t?
I strongly believe we could do it together if the Nigeria Football Federation allows it because I have gotten a strong understanding and rapport with the players and we could go places together as a group. I know I’ll be sacked if I don’t qualify the team as anyone would. It’s part of the job.
When was the last time you were paid considering issues of non-payment of salaries by the NFF going round especially after the death of Coach Shuaibu Amodu who was said to be owed months?
You know the issue of payment. At times you get paid early, other times late but overall I’ll say I don’t have so much issues regarding payment.
You had two good results in the last friendlies and as a result Nigeria has moved up in the latest FIFA rankings but what will you say about the criticism that you failed to involve local players in your plans?
When we planned those games, there were problems with the NFF financially at the time. You know to take home-based players you need to camp them for a month, pay flight tickets etc. That’s the reason we opted for players that plied their trade in Europe.
From recent reports, it’s obvious that your players actually like your methods. In fact some of them are even calling for you to be installed permanently. What’s your take on that?
It was the first time they all came together with me as head coach and they all saw how I related with them, took care of the business at hand and everybody was happy. Maybe that was why some of them felt with that with this guy we could go places.
There’s this issue that the Nigerian team, unlike previously, doesn’t have stand-out players that could make a different in a split second compared to countries like the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Do you think we can get that in a year or two?
For now you can see that some very young, amazing players and in the next three years, they’ll be very super in their various clubs and from there we could have the kind of stars you’re referring to.
But for now, we have group that are doing well and in the next few years they’ll have grown into superstars.
Every coach has his methods, for example José Mourinho pays more attention to the defence of his team while Pep Guardiola is more attack minded. What’s your own philosophy?
You see, my belief is that the best form of defending is to attack because when you attack you’ll be playing at their own half which means before they score you they’ll have to come to your half first which limits their chances of scoring against you.
I believe in attacking football.
I believe in attacking football but with responsibility knowing that the defence is also an integral part of the team and every player should be involved.
Does the introduction of young players like Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi and Musa Mohammed signify an end to the senior, more established, players as far as your team is concerned?
Like I said earlier the circumstances that made us select this team were special but I still this group can work with some senior players to achieve results. It’s always good to mix experience with youth.
The politics at the NFF – how distracting is that to your job and Super Eagles team?
We are professionals and are meant to look the other way because our focus is on team development.
Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi, all amazing players…
We don’t put ourselves on the political angle of things. It could be a distraction really but we try as much as possible to not make it affect us.
Among the players you worked with in the last few months, is there any one you think could single handedly take Nigeria to the next level?
We have amazing players and all of them have what it takes to be the best, they are all hungry and have the desire to better every time. Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi, all amazing players…
If you’re to advise the NFF to keep the current technical crew, what will say because over the years we’ve realized that bringing a new set means going back to the drawing board in terms of team building and team’s philosophy?
My advice to that they should keep me and my technical crew, give us contracts, so that we can continue giving the best to Nigeria.
A lot has been said about the failure to qualify to the last two African Cup of Nations, can you point out a particular thing that led to our failure?
It’s about leadership. When you’re the head coach, you take responsibility, win or lose. Then I was assistant coach and I cannot bear that responsibility.
I understand you were close to the late Shuaibu Amodu, how did you feel about his death?
I was not only close to Amodu but Keshi too. I was seriously sad about their demise but like we all know death is inevitable and when it comes there’s nothing we can do about it. As I sit here, I’m 54 years old and when it’s my time, I’ll surely go.
For example, we were supposed to be in France with Coach Amodu but unfortunately he couldn’t be with us due to visa issues, he coached me as a player in El Kanemi, and we come a long way, so it’s all sad really.
Finally, what do you think is the biggest issue holding Nigerian football back?
In my opinion, it’s not giving coaches time to build a team. It’s impossible to win all matches, in football you win some and lose some.
The most important thing is to look at the work the coach is doing and give him time depending on the progress achieved.