Emmanuel Amuneke, the 1994 African Footballer of the Year, is the trainer of Nigeria’s U-17 side; Golden Eaglets that secured a ticket to the African U-17 Championship Niger 2015 scheduled from February 15 to March 1, after posting a 6-2 aggregate win against Gabon at the weekend.
Last time, the team then under Coach Manu Garba with Amuneke as an assistant, finished runner-up at the continental championship last year in Morocco on their way to winning a record fourth FIFA U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
Speaking exclusively in this interview with Cafonline.com, the former Nigeria international who scored his country’s winning goal against Zambia at the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia and against Argentina at Atlanta’96 Olympics, revels in the joy of his latest achievement as well as his eyes on the prize in Niamey. Excerpts:
Q: Congratulations, what does qualification for Niger 2015 means to you?
It means so much to me for obvious reasons. I was an assistant the last time the team qualified for the African U-17 Championship and now as the defending world champions, I have been given the responsibility of handling the team. It has never been easy coupled with the administrative problems the federation is having but it is great that we have been able to do this despite the pressure. This team is not the same like last year’s but we are looking to Niger with good possibility. It was a good moment for me that we qualified with the way we did because there were some doubts after we lost 2-1 in Libreville but I’m so glad the response of the boys in the second leg and we won 5-0.
What were some of the challenges that you had to overcome since you built the team from the scratch?
The greatest challenge has to do with the fact that people are already comparing this team with the last squad that won the World Cup. The previous team had so much talented players if you compare them with the present team but our objective is to play collectively as a team. It took us almost two years to put the last team together but this time around, we were already competing in Togo barely one week after we started screening. So there has not been too much room to prepare the players like the last team, yet we have to look at it from the positive side because it has toughened the players to see what the demands at this level are.
The last team won the silver medal at the African U-17 championship in Morocco before winning the World Cup; does this put you under pressure?
No. We have different objectives or stages when we started this project. One was to qualify for Niger and the second was to qualify for the World Cup in Chile. We just want to take things in order; the qualification is different from the championship itself since it involves different strategies and plans.
You are an African football legend, what sort of motivation does this give to your players?
I’m privileged to have played and achieved much during my career and I consider it as privilege again having the opportunity to contribute my quota to the development of these young ones. I think this is a huge motivation for them because we tried as much as possible to show them how to do most of these things by playing and practising with them. I usually tell the boy to enjoy the moment because it is a privilege for them to play for the country.
How will you summarise your experience so far as national team coach at this level?
It has been a good experience despite the challenges but I’m happy because football gives us (Nigerians) joy and whatever I can do to put smiles on the faces of our people, I would gladly do it. Before I started coaching; I asked a lot of questions and evaluated myself if I would be able to do it? It is not only about winning because there are different stages you have to take before winning. As a young coach, I’m not the sort that get carried away about little things and I remain humble despite our qualification for Niger 2015, and I want to keep working silently to achieve my objectives.