Why Gernot Rohr may remain Super Eagles coach

Nigeria’s coach Gernot Rohr looks on during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) Semi-final football match between Algeria and Nigeria at the Cairo International stadium in Cairo on July 14, 2019. (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

Nigeria’s defeat at the hands of Algeria on Sunday signaled, not only the end of the Super Eagles hopes of Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) glory but also the beginning of a referendum on Gernot Rohr’s performance as coach of the team.

In fairness, the debate surrounding the quality of his work at the helm of the national team has roots farther back. It dates back to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where the manner of his side’s exit left a lot to be desired. Prior to that, Rohr’s time in charge of the national team had been reviewed largely favourably.

Nigeria struggled to build on the success of the 2014 World Cup, where they had equaled their best-ever finish at the Mundial before defeating at the hands of France. Subsequently, the team missed out on qualification for consecutive AFCONs, cycled through four coaches – two of whom were in charge in an interim capacity – and was then drawn in a World Cup qualifying group along with three former African champions, one of them the reigning kings.

It was into this slightly bleak situation that Rohr walked, and in that time he took the national team from a position of underachievement into a more befitting placement. Along the way, he masterminded victories over Zambia, Algeria and Cameroon, qualifying for the World Cup with a game to spare, and then beat Argentina in a high-profile friendly.

Following the World Cup, where a tough draw meant qualification was always going to be tricky, he oversaw qualification to the AFCON for the first time since 2013. With a run to the semi-finals to boot, there is a school of thought that, considering the state of the national team when he took over, his record is entirely above scrutiny, and he should be allowed to continue.

It is a strong case. However, the other side of the argument calls to attention, not the broad strokes, but the specifics of Rohr’s approach to management, as well as how suitable his outlook is for a major footballing nation with big ambitions.

There have been concerns over the German’s reluctance to seize the initiative in certain matches, to alter the direction of others, and also his insistence on dampening expectations at every turn.

The aforementioned defeat to Argentina saw the first real outpouring of dissatisfaction, as a late Marcos Rojo goal broke a nation’s back and heart. Why, the question goes, was Rohr reluctant to send on reinforcements when his side was under the cosh and appeared to be flagging physically? Why, in Sunday’s defeat against Algeria, was he content to play for an extra time despite being fresher than the opponent?

Some of his selection choices have also drawn criticism, not only publicly, but even within the national team squad. There is a concern among certain players that he is selective in his punishment of errors, and that his tactical set-up is not optimal, both on an individual and team basis.

Rohr had scathing words for youngster Chidozie Awaziem in the dressing room during the Algeria game, requiring the intervention of team captain John Obi Mikel, who again advised him to tone it down at full-time. There is also a feeling that his decision to drop Ola Aina, ostensibly for his error against Cameroon, was harsh, especially compared to some others who have kept their place in the squad despite underwhelming.

These competing schools of public opinion are now furiously deadlocked, hamstrung by the fact that, for all their strength of feeling and thought, they cannot directly affect the next course of action.

Rohr is under contract still, his deal with the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) running through to 2020. Further complicating matters are two things: first of all, his mandate from the Glass House was to reach the semi-final, and he did so, thereby fulfilling his brief; secondly, his contract contains a termination clause reportedly worth $1 million, a sum which the NFF can ill afford to pay right now.

Considering these factors, it is almost certain he will continue to lead the Super Eagles. However, there are plans afoot to send Rohr to German giants Bayern Munich for refresher courses, and also the NFF is set to revive the technical committee to vet his list of call-ups going forward.

It is a move that will go some way toward placating both sides, even as the 66-year-old continues to divide opinion.

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