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Gernot Rohr: I'd have won Africa Cup of Nations with Nigeria in Cameroon

Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr celebrates after winning the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations third place play-off match against Tunisia, and he was confident the Super Eagles would have won the coming tournament in Cameroon in 2022. KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images

Gernot Rohr was fired as coach by Nigeria this week after a record-setting five years, four months and 10 days in charge of the Super Eagles.

In this extended interview after being let go by the Nigeria Football Federation, the Franco-German opens up to ESPN about his time with the team, and his firing, and says he would have won the coming Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, having finished third in Egypt in 2019, had he been allowed to stay in charge.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

ESPN: What do you make of the timing of your being fired?

Gernot Rohr: It was not necessary to do this so close to AFCON. After what the team did, and after what the team had achieved with [reaching] the targets... but it happened, and we are realistic people. We handled the situation but it was not necessary. All the fake news, all the comments of an uncertain situation, for the past month; this is not professional at all.

The word is that the NFF has to pay you out. What is the situation with your contract?

My contract is running until the end of next year, and the contract has been broken. And now I'm waiting not only for the [unpaid] salaries but also for the salaries until the end of the contract. This should now be handled by my lawyer. He will do everything for me. I'm outside now of these questions. The legal situation must be cleared.

What has been the most difficult part of this for you?

To say goodbye to the players. Most of them called me already; we were family and we had to leave each other. And it's not so easy.

The other problem -- the money problems -- I was always very cool about it. I have the record for longest time as the coach in Nigeria, but perhaps also I have the record for the coach with [most] non-paid salaries.

But I'm proud to do the job all the time with professionalism and this efficiency, and with a good relationship with everybody in my team. When I say my team, this is the players, it's the staff, the technical staff, the backroom staff; we were a big family and even when outside there were problems we were strong together and we could even have reacted on some difficult situations but we choose to be quiet to do the job as a family.

You have just said that you met all your targets and that is fact. What was the reason they told you why they let you go?

They're searching for some reasons, of course. I hear everywhere that the performances were not good enough, but we have the statistics. Especially in the last games, because they took the last two games to say we are not in good shape and we are not playing well.

But the statistics are here: We had much more chances to score than the opponents, we had much more possession of the ball, we had much more shooting on the goal. So, it's really difficult to understand and to accept that. The facts are that we reached all the targets despite all the problems we had. It was not easy for everybody.

We did what we had to do... everybody knows the results, everybody knows that we are close to the AFCON, and I think this team should win it because this team is built to win matches, important matches, decisive matches.

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And also, what was the big problem for me is that I qualified the team for the playoffs of the World Cup, and I could not accept that they could possibly come after and tell me to leave after AFCON so that they will go to the World Cup with another coach.

After the match against Cape Verde, I got this information that they want me to go and I was waiting for the written confirmation. The [NFF] president only gave me the verbal confirmation the next day. And I had to write to [the players and team staff] myself to know what's happening.

It's not really a professional situation and this uncertain period was not good for anybody. The players didn't know what was happening. I continued my work of monitoring the players. But when I wanted to go to Nigeria to watch the [CAF] Confederation Cup games or African Champions League, they told me to monitor the players in Europe. That's what I did. Still, we stayed ready. We put our list together of 37 players before [Nov. 16]. The job has been done until the letter last Friday [Dec. 10].

Did they ask you to go to the Africa Cup of Nations then leave for someone else to come in?

The target in the AFCON was for me to reach the final. So if I don't get to the final in the AFCON, they could have a reason to sack me.

I'm sure that I would have got to the final but of course it's not 100% sure. I believe we could have had a good AFCON and also prepare for the World Cup through these six or seven weeks where we are working together, and the team can come closer and have more complicity, more harmony, and better football.

And this would be very good preparation because the most important thing is to go to the World Cup.

I'm sure that the team is able to do it because the team is getting better and better. We have one of the youngest teams in African football, and that is what I told [the NFF].

I was also sure that Victor Osimhen would try to come back with us even if his injury was a big one. We saw Osimhen already playing very well against Cape Verde beside Odion Ighalo. With two goal scorers like this -- one young one, one a little bit experienced -- the young one will become better and better if they stay together.

I'm sure that this association can bring good results. One can score goals and on the side with the quick players, quick wingers, we could give them very good balls. Our strategy was clear but I think that a lot of people did not recognise it.

Do you think you could have won the AFCON given you are sure this Nigeria team would have reached the final?

Of course! Last time we made third. We had a good AFCON, we lost in the semifinal in the last second. This time, I'm sure it would have been better because the team has been growing together for five years and we had our different strategies, and the tactics were becoming more and more efficient. And I think even without me, they will do it, they can do it, because this team is young, is intelligent, and they can fight. They love their fatherland and they will be able to do very well at the next AFCON.

How have your players taken this news?

I spoke with some players and some of them told me they don't want to continue. But I said to them: "You have to continue. Now you have Nigerian coaches and you have to do well for your fatherland." So, I think that [interim coach] Austin Eguavoen has only to continue in the same spirit to be successful and the AFCON title will be in Nigeria.

Some of the criticism against you is that you stick to certain players too much, and do not invite in-form players such as Emmanuel Dennis or Taiwo Awoniyi; and when you do, you don't give them enough minutes to play so there is no competition in the team.

We have tried so many players. Awoniyi has been invited; he played 45 minutes against the Central African Republic. He was unlucky, but he would have been invited again. Dennis has been invited also. He came in twice against Sierra Leone. And all the other ones have been invited or would have been invited. We have so many strikers that you cannot invite six centre-forwards.

I know that all Nigerians are passionate about football, and everybody has his own favourite for this. And I understand that everybody wants to see their favourite players. What is true is that perhaps I didn't follow the suggestions or the advice of the officials to invite certain players. That is possible because I wanted to do the choice with my technical staff and not with people from outside the team.

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You are saying officials wanted you to invite certain players?

Yes.

I got a lot of suggestions but I always wait. I understand that the officials want to do well -- everybody wants to bring in his advice, his opinion -- but in the end it was too much and it was difficult to work in these conditions.

Did anyone ever offer you money to invite a player?

No, never.

They know me in Africa and in Europe for a long time that I'm part of these people who can never be corrupted. My reputation is there. To take one player to help him in some clubs is something we did, but only in the interest of Nigerian football, only to help the players, and never for money.

If I was in Nigeria for money, I could have left a long time ago. Instead, I proposed a 20% cut in my salary because of the pandemic. But even then, the salary is not always coming -- and still not coming.

I'm surprised to see how Nigeria treats their coach. It's not only for me, it's also for other coaches. We're not paid and we're sacked.

You saw the NFF president's interview saying that he had to act before disaster happened, and that you had lost the dressing room. How true is that?

This is ridiculous. Everybody knows it. The dressing room was always with me. All the players are writing to me and thanking me for my professionalism, for my independent work, for my presence.

The dressing room was 100% behind me. And I hope it will also be 100% behind the new coach.

I think they already had this prepared. They brought the new coach [Eguavoen] one year ago, so he could have a look. He would ask for the technical reports because he was Technical Director and Paul [Aigbogun], his assistant, was doing for me the work of scouting the opponents.

But I wish them all the best because I want my players to succeed, to win the AFCON. I want Nigeria to go to the World Cup, and I'm sure that they will.

Do you have any regrets from your time in Nigeria?

No regrets.

We did all we had to do in the interest of Nigeria, and we are proud about that. We found young goalkeepers who will be here for perhaps 10 years. We found young wingers, we found new defenders. We helped our captain [Ahmed Musa] get the record of more than 103 games for his country. We produced the top goal scorers in the last AFCON and the qualifiers also.

So, five wonderful years and four months, and I thank [NFF president] Amaju Pinnick, who gave me the chance to work in this country. I will forget the end. What happened this last one year was not easy, but now I hope that everybody will be correct and can live like friends.

You set the record of being Nigeria's longest-serving coach. What would you like to be remembered for as your legacy?

Opinions are not all the same but everybody will see the facts. The facts are that we came from No. 67 in the world to No. 36. From No. 13 in Africa to No. five. And we will be in the top five [in Africa] for the World Cup draw, which is very important for the playoffs.

We had a wonderful professional relationship, and the human relationships also will be forever.

What was the most difficult challenge you had to face as Nigeria coach?

The most difficult challenge was when we had to go to Lagos to play under certain conditions. When we had to keep the players quiet and professional when they didn't get their bonuses paid.

And what would you say was the highlight of your time?

The best thing was always the qualification for everything. What we achieved in difficult groups with Cameroon, Algeria, Zambia for the World Cup, and then finishing first for the AFCON qualifiers. We never lost a competitive game for the qualifiers away. Never. We only lost two at home in Nigeria.

There are different reasons for that. Because at home, there are sometimes distractions that make it more difficult. They have family waiting for them, they have friends waiting for them, it's not easy for them to concentrate. And it's only Uyo where we can play well. That was the best one all the time, but we couldn't go there any more for different reasons.

I wish that Nigeria can get good infrastructure. They need to develop football. And they need solidarity between the sports minister and the federation. That was unfortunately not the case in these five years.

There was a report of a party by some of your players before the Cape Verde game. What really happened there?

Nobody had a party. Can you imagine having a party before the game? Maybe they were on PlayStation a little bit later than 11 p.m. together in another room with another player. But I can tell you that these players are 100% professional and they're doing very well, and nobody did what this crazy social media sometimes can say and it is shameful to see something like that.

If Nigeria asked you to come back at some point in the future, would you accept the offer?

I learned to love Nigeria, because it's a country of passion, a country of good people. Like everywhere, there are good people, and me, I remember only the good people. And that's why, why not?

If you have a message for the Nigerian people, what would that be?

The message would be to be optimistic now for the future of their football. The team is a young team and will only get better. There is no problem, no division inside the team, and the future will be bright. I want to thank all the people who supported me, who supported the team. I can understand the critics. Everybody wants to have the best for Nigeria; they want to have beautiful football and good results.

Sometimes it's not easy to do these two things; to have the results and also to make a big spectacle and to play a beautiful game. The thing that is very important, the first one now must be the result and that is what we tried all the time to do. But all the time also with good offensive spirit and good scores.

I'm not angry. I'm happy to learn about this country, and I will come back to see my friends, of course, and I hope all the best to the players and the new staff for this coming AFCON and to win it.

Finally, what now for Gernot Rohr?

I will take a good rest until the end of the year, and then perhaps I will come to watch the AFCON -- some games to be a pundit, like I was already sometimes.

I already got some calls, but I'm not ready for the moment to take another team. I will be the No. 1 supporter of my players in the next AFCON.