Don’t Crucify Okoye For Tunisian Goal And Buhari’s Call Not Responsible For Our AFCON Loss – Eguavoen

Austin Eguavoen, the Super Eagles interim coach, talks about the team’s defeat by Tunisia at the AFCON, his efforts to psyche up the players ahead of the 2022 World Cup play-offs and more.

The Eagles defeat by Tunisia came as a shock, after they were ranked favourites to win the Africa Cup of Nations. How did you take it? It’s didn’t go down well. I got emotional, just like the players were, after the game. But that’s football for you and that’s life. What hurts so much is losing at that stage of the competition. The head-to-head with Tunisia had been very tight in recent years and if you follow that game closely, it could have gone either way. I have spoken with the boys in a collective meeting and I will speak with a few of them in the coming days when the dust settles more, just to say a few words to them, and we can move on from there.

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Many Nigerians felt the team was technically deficient in the painful defeat. What’s your take? 
I don’t think we were deficient in that game. The Tunisians played for time as far as I’m concerned. They had ball possession but it was majorly in their own half and only got to our box on two occasions in the game. It was another style of play because in the entire first half, they came close only once when the ball was cleared off the line. Then in the second half, they did very well with possession, again in their own half. The only real chance they had from the edge of the box beat our goalkeeper. It could happen to anybody. It’s the end result that we see, we don’t see where the action starts from, it could have been avoided. Having said that, the keeper was beaten by that strike but mind you, this ball is similar to the one used at the 2010 World Cup, that swerves in between the legs and his reaction was a bit difficult. It is one of those things, I still rate (Maduka) Okoye as one of the best goalkeepers in this tournament. We are not going to crucify him for that, it can happen but we learn from our mistakes. In that game, we had a very big chance to change the style of play and the intensity and that was why we replaced Kelechi Iheanacho because he was on a yellow card. We didn’t want to risk him on the field and that’s why we brought in Alex Iwobi to try and see how we can go through the middle, since we weren’t  successful through the wings, because all our movements to the attack were a bit slow, passes didn’t get to Samuel Chukwueze and Moses Simon quick enough and that gave the Tunisians enough time to recover. We brought on Peter Olayinka and Iwobi. But unfortunately, he (Iwobi) was red-carded, so, the whole plan was a bit shattered, and at that point it became more difficult. We tried to switch to the back three, but was difficult because we had only 10 players. I think all the plans and instructions that the players got from us worked but that red card was the turning point.

Do you think Iwobi’s red card was a harsh decision? I really don’t want to speak about referees, so I won’t speak about the sending off. We all know the rules of the game, when you have an advantage, the game goes on, so, you cannot have an advantage and the referee calls the ball back. If you are fouled and the ball falls on the feet of your own teammate, they wave play on. The case study was that of Wilfred Ndidi and somebody else, the ball fell on our feet and we were goal-bound, but the referee called the playback for a free-kick. Maybe the tension was too much for the man in the middle, but those were some   calls that I wasn’t too pleased about.

A lot of Nigerians back home opined that Okoye was at fault for the goal against Tunisia… (Cuts in) That strike could beat any keeper because of the manner it came in between bodies. He remains a good keeper and I want to keep it at that.

We had a very big chance for an equaliser towards the end of the game through Sadiq Umar. How did you feel after he missed the chance? I was so happy that he could receive that pass but you know some players need one or two chances to score a goal while some others need five chances to score one goal. For a young boy like Umar coming to a major tournament like this for the first time, it’s expected. He was a bit nervous and you could see that in the first two games, but after we talked with him and channeled his mind to the right place, the result is what you saw when he came on against Tunisia. You can attest to this because his performance against Tunisia was much better than his last performances. I think he still did well, if he had scored, it would have been a different ball game, but this is gone, we must forget about it and forge ahead.

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Do you think a switch from the traditional 4-4-2 would have worked when you were chasing the game against Tunisia? 
If not for the expulsion of Iwobi, we would have resulted to a back three and a 3-4-3 formation.  A back three and a flat-four across the middle and of course have three players in front, that would be effective, but with 10 players, it was difficult. We still switched to a back three, but it wasn’t as effective as we wanted.

Have you spoken to Alex Iwobi after the red card? Yes, I spoke with Alex after the game a little bit. I will still talk with him personally and try to console him. He is a young boy and he needs to be encouraged, it’s not the end of life. We all came here with the ambition to make sure we make ourselves and the country proud, but it wasn’t to be, but they still have life afterwards, they have a career to follow. We have to try to put them in the right frame of mind because they must be ready for the games against Ghana in the World Cup play-offs and this whole thing will be a thing of the past.

You took charge of this team less than three weeks. What did you do differently to turn the squad around? We just built a platform for this team to continue with whoever will come, but the thing is we just had to work very closely, with the same boys. The only thing we tried to change was to make sure that the bonding was better; free your mind, be open and be honest with one another. I also appealed to them that each position does not belong to one particular person. If you are called to play, please play your best and if you are not called to play, don’t hold it back, still be part of the team, support them because your chance will come, and feel very free to express yourself. So, we gave enough freedom, but freedom with responsibilities. So, you are responsible for your actions and they understood that, the guidelines and rules.

There’s the general belief, especially on social media, that the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari’s (retd.) call to the team before the Tunisia game put the team under pressure. Is this true? The President is our father. Can you call your son and your son would say no? It’s impossible. We want to appeal to the fans, we know they expected much, but it wasn’t to be. The President of the nation calling his children is not a bad idea at all. I don’t think that had anything to do with the team negatively. I think the President was in a joyous, as he said, “You guys were doing well, please, keep it up.” It’s like tapping your son whenever he does well in school to continue in that manner, I don’t think it is bad at all.

Don’t you think the financial promises from members of the Coalition Against COVID-19 also distracted the team? No, it didn’t. If your son does well in school, don’t you promise him something? So, it’s the same thing, it’s normal, I don’t think it has any correlation with the interaction the Eagles had with Mr. President. I have told the players from day one, even when I was coaching a club side, that self-motivation is the best motivation; any other thing is a plus. If you are self-motivated, you go for it, for what you want. But those things that are being promised, it’s just to show appreciation of what you are doing, what you have done so far. I don’t think it has any effect on the team, not at all. 

If another African team comes for you, will you take the offer? It’s my country first. I had a chance to go to Stade de Malian two years ago, but as soon as I got that call from the President of the Nigeria Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick, I had to do a turnaround. It’s my country first. If I’m not contracted by the NFF and I’m in the labour market, yes, but once I have time with my federation, I don’t think I want to look somewhere else.

What is your future with the Eagles following this defeat? I’m an employee of the Nigeria Football Federation, that’s all I can answer. I will resume to my position as the Technical Director at the NFF now that the AFCON is over.

Photo Credit: Getty 

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