2016 was a low year for Nigeria, as the country was facing its worst ever economic downturn. Hardship started to set in for the citizens and there seemed to be no hope things would turn around soon enough. The same was applied to the country’s football, where things weren’t just going the right way and the Super Eagles dropped to all-time low; 70th place on Fifa World Rankings.
Gernot Rohr came in and his primary objective was to get Nigeria to the 2018 World Cup, but there was skepticism over his ability to get the job done.
That the West African giants were paired in the ‘Group of Death’ along with Algeria, Cameroon and Zambia – all former Afcon champions - made it all the more worrying. If it was anything to go by, the prior unsteadiness in the team was enough to make them underdogs among the lot.
However, the 1994 African champions rose above the doubts and the fears to qualify with a game to spare, winning four and drawing one. That is truly the hallmark of excellence and not something that happened by chance or mere luck.
Credit needs to be given to Rohr for how he has sailed the ship. The synergy in the squad has been a key factor in getting results even at moments when they didn’t look their best.
The German has been mature in the way he carries himself also, always quick to distance himself from any speculation and refusing to come out to publicly lash out at underperforming players.
The way he has handled the goalkeeping dilemma in Carl Ikeme’s absence is an example of his top-notch man management.
It's typically been the norm to see the Nigeria Football Federation interfere in the activities of coaches in the past, but not this time.
The Franco-German was called to question over his selection in the 2-0 defeat to South Africa in June by the governing body and was alleged to have been owed salary, but not one grunt or complaint came out of him. Things have moved on and he is really proving that he can handle this job with the enormous pressure it brings.
While there are lots of positives to Rohr’s approach, his selections have often raised eyebrows.
The defence is still not as rock solid as it should be, even with Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong forming a strong partnership at centre-back. The full-back position still raises some concerns, as Elderson Echiejile still looks far from his best. Abdullahi Shehu might have put in a man of the match performance against Zambia at right-back, but it remains to be seen whether he can deliver that kind of showing on a consistent basis.
The midfield has looked strong with captain John Obi Mikel the pivot, but he arguably needs to refine his partnership with Ogenyi Onazi and Wilfred Ndidi. Oghenekaro Etebo blended well with Mikel in the 3-1 triumph over Algeria last November but hasn’t started since, whiel John Ogu is another option that has been somewhat neglected by Rohr.
Rohr is yet to identify his main forward.
Kelechi Iheanacho got the nod previously but his lack of fitness and game time at Leicester City has halted his progress. In came Odion Ighalo, and while he turned up in the 4-1 aggregate demolition of Cameroon, he didn’t against Zambia. There is a wide pool of forward men available and 64-year old needs to find the right player that will deliver on a consistent basis in time for Russia.
Nigeria might be back on track, which is worth celebrating, but there’s still much work ahead.
The team need to raise their game, and Rohr must assess his options carefully to ensure he has a strong squad capable of going against the toughest sides in the world. The aim for the World Cup must be to try and go past the last 16, Nigeria's best performance in the tournament to date.
Nigeria is finally out of recession, with the country playing its best football again.
Now that Rohr has achieved his primary objective, the NFF would be wise to begin considering a contract extension. He's proved that he's good for the nation's short-term future, and his encouraging performance raises hope that he can oversee the national side for a long period of success.