INTERVIEW: Flying Eagles are favourites for U20 World Cup – Manu Garba

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In this interview, the Flying Eagles trainer speaks about his team’s chances at the U20 World Cup, his fears as well as his expectations heading to New Zealand for the Fifa U20 World Cup.
Flying Eagles in Senegal
After three wins in three in their training tour games in Germany, Nigeria’s U20 national team Coach Manu Garba has declared his side’s readiness heading to the 2015 Fifa U20 World Cup after paired with Brazil, Hungary, and North Korea in the preliminary stages.

The former Nigeria U17 World Cup winning coach, whose boys are unbeaten since the team transitioned from being U17 champions, said his team is not afraid of any side including opening opponents Brazil as they aim to win the championship.

Q: How was the training camp in Nurnberg, Germany?
MG: It has been a very good training site, there are no distractions. So, it has been very good for our preparations for the World Cup.

Q: You beat Hoffenheim U23, Nurnberg U19 and SC Freiburg U23 in all three training matches you played in Germany. What is your own assessment of the team’s performances in these games? Did it bring out the best in your team?
MG: I can say the first game against Hoffenheim was very, very competitive as they are a good side. I would say I was very impressed with the way the boys played as they were playing together after a long time. I was happy with the way they played, the way they kept the ball and they scored five fantastic goals despite the fact that we had a few mistakes especially in our recovery and failing to convert some chances. These are some of the things we are now trying to address before the World Cup. The second game we played was better than the first, although the opposition was not as stiff as that of the first game. But we were able to perfect all our movements in that game. We scored some fantastic goals again and there was an improvement in the ball circulation. Taiwo Awoniyi played 35 minutes in the first game and 45 minutes in the second game and he scored six goals. This means we are getting there attack wise, but we still need to work on our defence. This is where we need to work on before the World Cup kicks off. The match against Freiburg was our best game because we created so many chances even though we failed to convert most of them.
Q: What exactly do you need to work on in the defence?
MG: The mental speed of the players – they do recover in good time, but they often fail to do the marking when it matters most, to close up on the opposition. But I believe before the World Cup, the defence will be a lot tighter because we will surely work on those areas. This is the major weakness of this team.

Q: You have announced your final 21-man squad for the World Cup. Are you satisfied with your selection?
MG: I am very, very satisfied because it has been very, very tough getting to this final squad. If you look at players like Abdullahi Alfa, who played every minute at the last World Cup, is out of the team, so too Samuel Okon, Muazam (Alhassan Ibrahim), who has been on good form lately. But above all, I will beat my chest any day to say that this was the best team we selected from this set of players. This is because we took the selection departmentally. The midfield is the main strength of this team but with the inclusion of Isaac Success, Kelechi Iheanacho and Moses Simon, the attack will be very, very deadly. It will be difficult to get an attack that will be as deadly as that of Nigeria. So, coupled with the compactness and strength of the midfield, I believe this is a very good squad and we just need prayers for the boys to win every match at the World Cup. That’s our aspiration. We’re not just aiming at the cup, but we want to win every match and by so doing, the cup will be ours. We don’t want to toy with any match. This is not to say that all the other teams in New Zealand do not have a chance of winning the tournament. But we are very, very optimistic that as African champions and with the strength in depth in this team, we’re much stronger than the team who played at the African Youth Championship in Senegal.

Q: How much stronger than at the African Youth Championship in Senegal?
MG: A player like Kingsley Sokari was not there (in Senegal), a player like Iheanacho was not there, a player like Success was not there, Moses was not there, Wilfred Ndidi was not there and Nwakali wasn’t there. These are players who can play for any team any day once they are fit. The team are much stronger than that at the AYC. I believe many people will be working with the team they saw at the AYC, but they will be surprised to see different players, who are much better in terms of technique and exposure. When they pick up, this team will be unstoppable throughout the championship. You have been quoted as saying that if you don’t make it to my training camp, you are out of my final squad. But we see Success, Iheanacho and Moses Simon were not in Germany, yet they will be New Zealand for the World Cup. I said that because the players who have been training with us understand our philosophy and have undergone all the trainings, but you can’t take away anything from Success, who is playing for a club like Granada and he is injury free and doing well. Moses is the most important player at Belgian club Gent. Kelechi has been on superb form. He is one player who can be relied upon if he is free of injury and I believe he has recovered from that injury. I believe their inclusion in the team will go a long way in adding more strength to the team. We are also not saying these players will come in automatically to the first team, they will be coming in gradually for them to find a synergy with the other players.

Q: The fear of some is that these players have not been with the squad for many months and so they will not be able to blend with the group quickly. Do you share such fear?
MG: No. I don’t have any fear because these players have been with us. Even Moses Simon was with us in the early part of the U17 team before he went on to play for the U20 team. He may not know our philosophy, but for Kelechi and Success, they know how we play right from the U17s. Kelechi even played the qualifiers. All the same, it will not be difficult for Moses because he played in the same academy in Kaduna with Musa Yahaya and he is a striker who knows when and how to move. It will be easy for him to adapt. We have two, three training sessions together (in New Zealand) and they will again know how we play and what we want them to contribute to the team.

Q: Two, three trainings will be enough for them to blend?
MG: They are all coming from competition and so you can’t fault their fitness level. I am more about them integrating with the rest of the team. The language of the game is simple – If you have the ball, before you release it, you have to look up and see the movement of your player. If the other player has the ball, you have to move to a vital space to receive the ball. I believe getting that cohesion will not be very difficult because two of them, Kelechi and Success, have been with this team, while Moses will adapt very quickly. We will sit them down to show them what we expect them to do. I believe they will adapt because they are young players and very, very intelligent. They will not get into the team in the very first match, they will sit on the bench and observe and whenever we need them, they will come on to do the damage.

Q: The Flying Eagles are drawn against five-time champions Brazil, North Korea and Hungary in the first round. What do you know about these teams?
MG: Sincerely speaking, we know very little about them, but then everyone knows the Brazilian philosophy – they play the way we want by moving the ball from the rear, they don’t kick long balls. This style is good for our own pattern of play. The Hungarians are from Europe, they will play a more direct game, while the Koreans are very, very fast and they like moving the ball. But we are a team who do not want to be diverted from the way we play and so we want the opponents to play the way we want. We have really worked very, very hard and I believe by the time we are in New Zealand, we will be ready for any team in the world.

Q: Your opening match is against mighty Brazil, who have won this competition five times. How are you looking forward to that game and how crucial is it in your aspiration?
MG: I respect all the teams who have qualified for this championship and that includes Brazil, who have been good at this level, but believe you me, Brazil is Brazil and Nigeria is Nigeria. Brazil have won the World Cup several times, but Nigeria have got silver twice and a bronze. At U17 level, we are rated no.1 in the world. And half of the team to New Zealand are from the last U17 team. We are a united team who have conquered the world at U17 level and we have now been joined by other players who are more technically balanced than some of them from the U17s. So, I believe we are ready to take on any team. But I also know that the first match in any tournament is the most important and so we will do all we can to pick up the maximum three points against Brazil, which will go a long way to motivate the team in subsequent matches. I could recall Mexico came to last U17 World Cup as defending champions and they had not lost a match for two years. But against a Nigerian side, who did not play a test game for a month, we defeated them 6-1. This is not to say we will be overconfident. We are confident in ourselves to beat Brazil in our opening game. We are very ready for the World Cup.

Q: You said you will go to the World Cup as African champions and after that you said you wish to make history as the first Nigerian team to go all the way and win the U20 World Cup. Are we on track in this regard?
MG: Yes, I said before the AYC that I wish to go to Dakar to qualify as African champions. I still believe we can go all the way to win this U20 World Cup for the first time for Nigeria. Nigeria have reached the final twice and we got a bronze in Moscow (1985). This time we have a team who are very focused, determined and want to go out there and win the World Cup for Nigeria for the first time. But we cannot do that by merely talking about it, we intend to take every match as it comes. So, the most important game now is the match against Brazil. We will approach every game with caution, although the knockout stages are the most difficult, but we want to win every game and by so doing, we will be champions. This is our major objective at the World Cup. All we need is for Nigerians to keep faith in this team, for them to pray for this team and on our part, we will do everything humanly possible to bring the cup back to Nigeria and Africa.

Q: When, and not if, you win the World Cup, what will be the next step for you and the team?
MG: I am a firm believer in destiny and I always put the country first. The most important thing for me now is to make sure we go to the World Cup and accomplish our mission of winning the tournament. Whatever comes after that, God knows what I will be and when I will be. Wherever he takes me to, I will remain grateful to God Almighty because he determines everything. Right now, God knows the team who will win the World Cup – it is our hope and prayer that it will be Nigeria. We have come a long way, we have worked very hard throughout the qualifiers, managing ourselves in all aspects, but our major focus has remained to win the World Cup. With God on our side, we can do it.

Q: Could you pick a particular player from this very talented team who will shine at the World Cup?
MG: Right from the qualifiers, Taiwo Awoniyi has been very consistent and he has improved match after match. He is a player who gets into a scoring position better than any other player. I believe if he stayed calm, he will be one player who will do very, very well at the World Cup. There are some others like Kelechi Iheanacho, who was the best player at the last U17 World Cup. If he was free of injury, he will hit very big as well. There is also Kingsley Sokari. If he listened very well and works very hard too, he will have a great World Cup. You cannot forget a player like Moses Simon, who has been fantastic in Belgium, he will be great. I believe the best player and highest scorer (of the World Cup) will come from my team.
Q: With such a presentation of top quality players, won’t you have selection problems?
MG: We have a way we choose our team here – the starting team will be the best players in the week of the match, the player who are injury free and who are in top shape and the right frame of mind to deliver the goods. With these 21 players, you can close your eyes and say this 11 will start and they will do well. At times, the bench will be stronger than the starting line-up. Sometimes you win your match from the bench. There won’t be selection problems because we will pick players who understand each other more, so that the cohesion and the rhythm will go well. Team play comes first before any individual showmanship. We will pick players who are free of injury, players who play together and who are committed to cover for each other throughout the game.
Q: So, is it safe to say this is the best team you have ever worked with?
MG: I believe the U17, who won the World Cup two years ago are the best because this team are yet to play in the World Cup. With the U17s, we broke so many records – Best player, best goalkeeper, won the fair play trophy and so on. But this team in terms of quality has improved a great deal. We cannot rate them because they have not played at the World Cup yet. This team is the delight of any coach at this level. We just hope these boys keep their cool, listen to what we teach them and with God on our side, we will win the trophy.
Q: Finally, how confident are you Nigeria will be crowned world champions on June 20?
MG: I am not overconfident, but right from when I was born I do not fear in whatever I do because God has a way for everybody in life. I go into any challenge without fear but with good preparation, I pray very well and ensure the team is united. No matter how good a team is, when there is no unity between the officials and the players, it will affect the team on the pitch. But this team has been very wonderful. The officials are a team and so in Senegal despite some few problems, we managed ourselves and at the end of the day we won the trophy with a half strength team. The team have grown in confidence and unity. You could see that even we announced the 21-man squad, it was just like it had not been announced. This goes to show that we have done a very good job to unite this set of players. I believe this unity will be for a purpose and God will now crown all our efforts for us to create that history in winning the cup for the first time for Nigeria.

G: Good luck coach in New Zealand.
MG: Thank you and good luck as well to all Nigerians.

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