Tom Saintfiet said that he is convinced that he has the quality to “take Nigeria to Russia” where the 2018 edition of the Fifa World Cup will hold.
Nigeria have been drawn in a difficult qualification group alongside Algeria, Cameroon and Zambia which Saintfiet has described as “a small World Cup” of its own.
The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) has had a checkered past months with keeping hold of coaches for its men’s national team, the Super Eagles, which have seen Stephen Keshi (now late), Sunday Oliseh and Samson Siasia take charge of the failed 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualification. Currently, Salisu Yusuf is saddled with the job of head coach pending when a substantive manager is named.
Even Frenchman, Paul Le Guen, who was recommended by the NFF technical committee for the job, has turned down Nigeria’s offer but one of the three shortlists, Tom Saintfiet, has put up his hand saying he is the man for the job.
“I am convinced in my qualities and in myself as a coach. I can take Nigeria to Russia. I am convinced about the current crop of players. I first admired Nigeria in 1994 when Westerhof and since then I have followed the game in Nigeria. Remember I was appointed technical director of the (Nigeria) football federation in 2012 but the minister of sports turned it back after a few weeks,” Saintfiet told supersport.com on Saturday from Dhaka in Bangladesh.
WHY SAINTFIET WANTS EAGLES JOB
However, Saintfiet has declared that he is ready to live in Nigeria if given the Super Eagles’ head coach role and throws his hat in the ring as “one of the tactically sound coaches for the Super Eagles.”
The Belgian is confident that the current group of Nigerian players can go places and believes that the country has a huge talent base to compete at the highest level of the sport in the world.
He added that his knowledge of the sport in Africa having managed the men’s national teams of Ethiopia, Malawi, Namibia, Togo and Zimbabwe as well as clubs on the continent like Young Africans SC and Free State Stars gives him an edge.
“I’ve lived in Africa since 2008 and I know the players and teams quite well. During my two and a hlf years in Namibia, I stayed full time in he country and was able to watch over 200 matches to know more about the playing nature of the country. Apart from that, I believe I am one of the tactically sound coaches for the Super Eagles. I lived in Togo for 14 months and watched league games and even street games. I lived in Malawi and did same. It’s not creating the team of best players but creating the best team – a team that will compete for their nation with honour and respect and fight for their country at every time,” he further told supersport.com.
“Nigeria is my priority and that is why I have not taken up the Bangladesh job. I have postponed the signing and I want to go to the World Cup with Nigeria and not just that but to reach the semis of the World Cup because they have the quality to do so. I am ready to live in Nigeria.”
He believes the talent base in Nigeria would suit his coaching abilities. Saintfiet feels self-assured that he can become the first coach to lead an African nation to the semifinals of the Fifa World Cup if he takes reins as Eagles head coach.
“Nigeria is one of the two African countries that can reach the semifinals of the World Cup or even become the first from the continent to win the World Cup. I am sure I can take Nigeria to Russia because they have a huge talent base of players in their league and also overseas,” he said.
THE ISSUE OF A BIG-NAME COACH
Saintfiet does agree that there are the big-name coaches and others. But the 43-year-old Belgian tactician gives an interesting insight into how coaches with small beginnings have been able to navigate their ways to become cult-heroes on the continent.
He pointed out the like of Clemens Westerhof, Bonfrere Jo, Bruno Metsu (now late) and Herve Renard as men who came to Africa and made their mark despite not being high-profile coaches in Europe. Saintfiet added that local coaches like Shuaibu Amodu and Keshi did same by carving out names for themselves when little was expected from their managerial careers.
“Most of the time there are talks about wanting the big-name coaches in Africa. I have huge respect for such coaches but football doesn’t work that way. Some people say Saintfiet is not a big-name in football. It is very important to note that the coaches who succeeded, for instance, with Nigeria were never big-name coaches. It was Clemens Westerhof and Jo Bonfrere who were successful as foreigners and then Stephen Keshi and Shuaibu Amodu who were successful as local coaches. But it wasn’t the big-name coaches like Berti Vogts or Lars Lagerback that were successful with Nigeria.
“In this case, it is not only with Nigeria. Even in the Ivory Coast, there was Sven Goran Eriksson didn’t get desired results or Cameroon with Javier Clemente as well as some other African nations who appointed big-names and spent a lot of money. The most times, the coaches who succeeded in Africa are not the too famous coaches. I remember Bruno Metsu, who arrived in Guinea and later to Senegal. I also think of Herve Renard who did very well with Zambia and later Ivory Coast. These are coaches in Europe who were not known and never worked in Europe with big countries or big clubs but African football is different because you have to live in the country and know the country. I have worked full time in African countries because I want to watch football everyday in the country where I work,” Saintfiet explained.
THE CALABAR SAGA WITH KESHI & NIGERIA
There are, however, the school of thought that Saintfiet may have done his chances of becoming Nigeria’s coach at any time in the future a harm with the saga that played out in Calabar in 2013 when he was credited with comments taken a swipe on the West African nation.
Saintfiet has now explained that what transpired back then was a psychological war rather than invectives aimed at bringing down Nigeria or Keshi. He further said Keshi later became his friend leading to them exchanging coaching notes over opponents.
“When I was coach of Malawi I played a psychological war. When I said things about Calabar then I used it to manipulate things in our favour before the game. If Jose Mourinho do that people would like it. I did exactly at that time the same thing. If I am coach for any team or country I will do everything for that team or country to win. I never said anything negative about Nigeria or Stephen Keshi. I only manipulated the situation to get a psychological advantage.
“After the match, Keshi and I got back to talk and we stayed in touch afterwards by always talking on the telephone and email. I remember Stephen calling me before Nigeria’s playoff game against Ethiopia for advice in 2013 because I was former national team coach of the country in 2011. So the Ethiopian team was still similar to the one I handled. So we exchanged email messages a lot on that. I never had a fight with Stephen or Nigeria we had huge respect for each other. I remember he told me how he wanted to go to Belgium for the Uefa coaching licence in the months after the 2014 Fifa World Cup,” Saintfiet said of the Calabar saga.
NIGERIA’S TOUGH WORLD CUP QUALIFICATION
Despite knowing that Nigeria have been drawn in a very difficult World Cup qualifying group, Saintfiet is still ready to offer his services since the West African nation are in the hunt for a foreigner to take charge of their men’s national team, the Super Eagles. He has claimed that he knows the pulse of Nigerians especially as results, footballing terms, have not gone their way in recent months.
Saintfiet went on to lift the lid by giving snippets of knowledge on how he would approach the Nigeria’s opponents during the World Cup qualification in Africa billed to start in October this year when the Super Eagles begin their attempt to reach a sixth World Cup.
“I understand the feelings of the people at the moment because we don’t have to lie as this is the toughest group and this is almost a small World Cup. All the opponents are highly respected countries with lots of football qualities. Algeria has developed well and become one of the best and they have a team that have been together for some years. They have good players in Europe and locally, and they are a tactically strong nation and very difficult to beat. Players like (El Arabi Hillel) Soudani, (Sofiane) Feghouli and (Riyad) Mahrez play top football.
“On the other side, Cameroon a little bit older generation mixed with newer ones to give a very good blend. They have got experience in Eyong Enoh and then there is Vincent Aboubakar who is very good and performs quite well. Then you talk of Zambia who have an almost African-based national team. They have players who play for Zesco United and then some in the PSL (Premier Soccer League). So I have had the opportunity to travel around a lot to see games and when I am not on the road I watch games on SuperSport.
“I know this is not an easy group but Nigeria have a good group of players. Nigeria have a large number of very good players among more than 400 African players abroad. There are big and small names, but it is now left to find the proper mix to sift players who are able to play in a tactical style and discipline and adapt as well. Some players are good in Europe but when they come to Africa they find it tough, so that’s where the games against Cameroon and Zambia might need different approaches because of different circumstances,” he said.
Saintfiet now hopes that he would get his dream job with Nigeria stay in the West African for the long haul unlike his brief stints with Ethiopia or Malawi which he attributed to “small budgets” by the FAs of those nations forcing him to take up short-term deals.