BY KUNLE SOLAJA.
Super Eagles manager, Jose Peseiro enters a crucial moment in his coaching career as the next edition of the Africa Cup of Nations beckons. His performances have not been very convincing to the average football follower in Nigeria, especially concerning the leaky defence line in his team.
It could also be taken that it was a lingering problem that he inherited since mounting the saddle last year.
He recently spoke with Sky Sports in which he revealed his aspirations for the Super Eagles and also his past before taking up the Super Eagles job.
He knew there would be challenges when he took over the team of a football-obsessed nation of over 200 million people.
If dreams were horses, it will be taken that Nigeria will win the next edition of the Africa Cup of Nations, although the target given the coach was a semi-final slot.
It should also be observed that the semi-final slot is not a new height for the Super Eagles. The team had attained that position in 15 of its last 19 appearances in 33 editions of the competition.
In the process, Nigeria had won thrice and were runners-up four times and had eight third-place positions. Target for the coach may have been informed by Peseiro’s credentials.
He has Master’s in sports science. But for his career in globe-trotting, major silverware has eluded him. He now feels his time has come. The big opportunity, according to his interview with Sky Sport, is the 34th Africa Cup of Nations holding in Cote d’Ivoire.
“The main goal is to win the AFCON,” he said. “We will need to be at our maximum because we know that there is good opposition. There is Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Ghana and Ivory Coast. But we believe we can do it. I believe. And the players believe.”
According to him, he is trying to build a solid team, but he had challenges as he was forced to select a number of domestic players for friendlies against Mexico and Ecuador last year.
To him, it is a frustration as he tries to foster a sense of togetherness and that it is not easy when players are coming together from around the world.
“I tried to explain that if you do not come for the friendly matches we cannot improve. Never will you create that connection, not only on the pitch but off it, because the spirit is important. If you meet up more often, you can create that spirit that you need.”
Peseiro believes he has a potent strike force.
“Osimhen has joined up with the squad in this international window, setting the example. But he is not alone. Nigeria’s depth is a point of difference with the other nations in Africa.
“It is not easy for me to choose the strikers or the wingers,” laughs Peseiro. Nottingham Forest’s Taiwo Awoniyi and Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho are in the squad. From Serie A, there is Milan’s Samuel Chukwueze and Atalanta’s Ademola Lookman. Victor Boniface is the leading scorer at Bayer Leverkusen, top of the Bundesliga.
“But it is clear who is the star. When Osimhen goes to Nigeria, everybody wants to touch him or speak with him or wants a picture with him,” says Peseiro.
“And not just in Nigeria. Everywhere.” In qualification for AFCON, he scored 10 goals – twice as many as anyone else for any other country.
“The only reason he did not score more was because he allowed his team-mates to take two penalties. My advice would be to take them! Other players would not allow that but if someone asks him to let them take a penalty, he allows it. He is a good guy.
“He is a strong guy, a smart guy and an amazing player, defensively and offensively. He can do everything. He pressures the centre-backs, he pressures the line by running in behind. He can attack the ball in the air and on the ground. He is motivated, quick and strong.”
It is why Nigeria are dreaming of that first AFCON success in over a decade. “We can win it,” adds Peseiro.
“The players know it. They come with the same energy, the same belief, to fight for the Super Eagles.” With Victor Osimhen around, anything is possible.
And there is no chance of his national team manager forgetting it.
Peseiro went on to reveal his past as a coach. A former second-tier striker in his native Portugal – “I did not play at a high level” – his coaching career took a turn after promotion to the top flight with Nacional. A job offer set him on a different trajectory.
“I was in Brazil scouting players when my old teacher Carlos Queiroz called me. He told me he was going to Real Madrid and wanted me as his assistant.” This was 2003, the summer that David Beckham joined the garlanded group that became known as Galacticos.
‘I called Jose Mourinho’
“I did not decide immediately, I called Jose Mourinho because he was my friend. Remember that he had been an assistant at Barcelona. I asked him what he thought because I was already a head coach. He told me, ‘Go. Because you can learn a lot there’.”
Suddenly, Peseiro was taking sessions with Raul, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo, with Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo. “Until then, I was afraid. Never before had I shared a dressing room with big players. But it was not difficult because they are so smart. It was fantastic.”
The experience lasted only one season. “We had 11 good players and then the others.”
The experiment of blending superstars with academy prospects – and selling the unheralded Claude Makelele – became an example of why great teams beats great individuals.
Peseiro has taken those learnings into a varied career that has seen him lead Sporting to the UEFA Cup final in 2005 before working in Greece and Romania. He has been in charge at Porto and head coach of the Venezuela national team. “You have to adapt,” he said.
“The Ajax team of the 1970s are still my main reference, their mobility in attack, their control of the ball. From this, I created my model. But the game has changed a lot. Arrigo Sacchi reduced the pitch to 40 or 50 metres and it reduced the space.
“The challenge is to find that space so players can show their skills, that is what people want to see. But the modern game is a game of transition. That is what decides the best teams because it is easier to train attacking and defensive organisation than the transitions.
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