On the eve of the team’s departure from their training camp in Buenos Aires, Argentina for the World Cup finals, Amuneke in a special interview with the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) website, www.thenff.com, discussed virtually everything about the Golden Eaglets. Excerpts...
First and foremost, I want to thank God that has been there every step along the journey since we started in 2014. I consider it as a privilege to serve the country in another capacity and we have done so with all sense of responsibility. I was clear in my thoughts about what I needed to do by assembling a team that would be able to secure a ticket through the African qualifiers. It was not easy initially because we had to build the team from one stage to another and eventually we qualified for the Africa U-17 Cup of Nations in Niger and eventually, we also qualified for the World Cup in Chile. But it was not easy along the way; all along, I knew we had to be firm and strong in our decisions because the process at this category is full of many difficulties. So right from the start, we assumed the responsibility of doing things in the right way and to the best of our abilities. We were fair and just in all our decisions leading to this stage and it is our prayer as a team that God will crown all our efforts in Chile. We are set for the World Cup and I would be delighted if the players can put on display all that we have taught them in Chile; and we are optimistic that we are going to have a good tournament.
Many were of the view that you struggled to qualify for the World Cup after finishing fourth at the Africa U-17 Cup of Nations in Niger. Has this in anyway affected your confidence?
With all modesty, I think we have done reasonably well looking at our circumstances. This process has been long; we started with a lot of players and along the line we were unable to use some of them in Niger because of one reason or the other. I think we did our best in Niger bearing in mind that of all the four teams that represented Africa at the last World Cup in the UAE were in Niger Republic. We are the only one going to Chile and that to me is an achievement. Having said that, we have been working hard to correct some of the problems we had in Niger and we are hopeful that the new players we have added to the team would give us what we want; and add more value to what we already have on ground by the time we get to Chile.
What has changed since Niger 2015 in February and what is the difference between the team you took to Niger Republic and the team you have picked for the World Cup in Chile?
People might feel our best was not good enough in Niger but I think the players gave their best though their best was not enough to win the tournament. The World Cup in Chile is here and we are mindful of the fact that we are going to play our first game against the USA on October 17; and we are working very hard. Hopefully, the image we gave at the African championship would be very different from what we are going to see in Chile and I’m positive that we are going to do well in Chile.
What gives you this kind of confidence going forward to Chile?
I have always believed in myself and in my team; I believe in the players that I have and in what I’m doing. I have constantly transmitted the same confidence to them so that they can have the same self –belief in their abilities in order to represent the country very well. We have told the players that it was a rare privilege for them to be picked to represent the country at this level and I’m confident that those that we have picked will do their best in Chile. We have some good players in this team but what is important to me is how to see them play as a team and function effectively; we want to see them perform effectively when they have and they don’t have the ball and if they can be able to do this, our job is half done.
Why the emphasis on team work?
My belief is that a team must play collectively because we have passed the era where you rely only on one player to carry the team. Even those who are sitting on the bench are part of the project and as such, I always want to look at the totality of my team and how each player in different positions would function. Though you must have two or three quality players in a team, essentially, I always want the players to function as a team rather than as individuals. If we can function effectively, it allows the individual players to bring out the best in them.
This team has been compared to the 2013 World Cup-winning team of which you were an assistant coach. What is the difference between that team and the present one?
Frankly, I don’t always want to go into this kind of argument or comparison because it is difficult to change what people believe. Though many people would not give us credit, this team has performed creditably well under very peculiar circumstances that I don’t even want to talk about. But this is a team that has been competing right from the beginning of our campaign in 2014; and any decent follower of the team will appreciate what we have done, though we never had the luxury of long time camping like the last team. I really want to thank all the players that went through the process with us until we arrived at this final stage...because without them, we would not even be talking about going to the World Cup in Chile. I don’t always want to compare teams because no two teams are the same. Every team has to write its own history.
What kind of history do you want to write with this team?
We want to defend the Cup we won in 2013 with the best of our abilities; but in the process, we want to see the team play very well and for the players to really enjoy themselves in Chile.
A lot of players have passed through the process since you started in 2014, so what factors determined the final 21 players you picked to represent Nigeria in Chile?
We picked players basically on what we called Three ‘A’s: Ability; Attitude and Approach. Apart from that; we also looked at their vision; intelligence and above all; you know a player must also be eligible by passing the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) Test before he can even be considered. We looked at what players that were available can add to the team and we have selected these boys in all fairness. We asked ourselves (I mean the coaching crew) salient questions before we eventually picked each of the players. Though I’m the Head Coach, it was a collective decision when picking the players.
What does it mean to you to be leading a team to the World Cup as a coach after playing at the World Cup as player in the 1990s?
This is another privilege and I’m always grateful that I was given the opportunity to represent the country as a footballer. And many years after, I have also been given the responsibility to represent the country as the coach to the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015. But it is also a huge responsibility. I’m hoping for good results in Chile because we have worked very hard along the way.
Does being a former African Footballer of the Year serve an inspiration to your players or a burden because of high demands?
It is never a burden because I don’t see myself as a former African Footballer of the Year before my players. I’m just their coach; and with the other officials, we are like fathers to these young boys. As such, we have to bring ourselves down to their level and my thought is to help these boys to write their own story. We have to encourage them and when the need arises, we have to also discipline them because in the final analysis, we want them to be good human beings and good footballers too.
What would be a good tournament for Emmanuel Amuneke at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015?
We can’t sit down here and be predicting the outcome of matches we have not played but it our responsibility as a team to go out there and do our best. All the 24 teams going to the tournament have one objective in mind and that is winning the trophy. After all said and done, we pray for good luck too because that is also important. We are positive about our chances in Chile.