By Kayode Ogundare:
Toyin Ibitoye is the Media Officer of the Super Eagles of Nigeria which is in Krasnodar, Russia preparing for Tuesday evening’s friendly international against Argentina as part of the build-up to the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Ibitoye was live from Russia to lagos-based Channels Television station to speak about issues surrounding the national team, last Friday’s World Cup qualifiers against Algeria among others.
Completesportsnigeria.com brings you excerpts of the interview…
How’s the mood in camp for the game against Argentina?
The Argentina game is a way of starting our preparation for the World Cup. Our boys are in high spirits. We are missing some key players but that won’t stop us from playing a good game. It offers us the chance to look at options that we have in case of withdrawals ahead of the World Cup owing to injuries or loss of form.
Don’t you think playing such a high-profile game at this stage of the team’s preparations can be counter-productive?
We are happy to play this kind of high profile game very early in our preparations to show us where we are lacking and need to strengthen our squad so that we can present a strong team that will make Nigeria proud next year at the World Cup.
Can you let us in into who and who would be playing on Tuesday?
The starting line-up will be out a few hours to the game but the coach has already hinted that he would be making changes to the team that faced Algeria because the essence of the game is for us to try out as many players as we can to see what our options are. The coaches will decide what the changes will be between this morning and a few hours to the game tomorrow evening.
Don’t you think there’s a danger in playing Argentina now when the possibility exists that we could be meeting them when the draws are made? Won’t that mean that they would have knowledge of our strength and weakness and use that against us?
The draws have not been done yet so there’s nothing wrong with playing Argentina. If we say we should be scared that the Argentines would have better knowledge of our team in case we meet them at the World Cup, then it works both ways. They should also be scared that Nigeria would have better knowledge of their team too. We should not be too worried about that but we should look at the benefits of playing a team like Argentina. They have pedigree as former World Cup winners, losing finalists at the last edition and they have arguably the best player in the world in Lionel Messi. So, frankly, I think we stand to benefit more from playing them than they would from playing us.
We should thank our Match Agent Jairo Pachon for being able to get us this high profile game because, if you look at the FIFA window for friendly games, we don’t have too many between now and the World Cup so we should make use of all the opportunities we can get to strengthen our team and be ready to face the best 31 teams from across the World.
Let’s go back to the Algeria match. The officiating was not top-notch and one would feel the referee was acting a script with that penalty and the other decisions that he failed to give in our favour?
It’s very tricky when you talk about the referee’s decision and all of that. That referee, Eric Otogo-Castane, is easily one of Africa’s best and had an excellent game in my opinion until that moment when he gave that penalty in the dying minutes of the game. Unfortunately, that one call made a mess of the good work he had done all through the game but it doesn’t make him a bad referee all of a sudden. I think it was just an error of judgement on his part. It’s one of those things that happen once in a while in the course of games. We thought we had done enough to win the game but the referee thought otherwise. Things like this happen everytime. Sometimes it could be to your favour and sometimes it could work against you. Fortunately the game was inconsequential as we’d already won the WC ticket. It was just a test game to see a couple of new players in a competitive game. We have moved on from that and we are now looking towards the next game against Argentina.
Will there be other high-profile friendly games apart from Argentina?
Sure. We are looking at the possibility of using the FIFA window in March to play another grade one friendly. NFF President Amaju Pinick, a member of the CAF Emergency Committee raised the possibility of moving AFCON qualifiers from March so that World Cup bound teams could use the window to perfect their preparations. His argument was that since the AFCON is in 2019, there’s no harm in shifting the qualifiers till after the World Cup in July. This is a brilliant suggestion and, for me, one of the gains of having him in CAF at that level. His suggestion will be tabled at the CAF Executive Committee meeting very soon and we hope they approve it so that we can play a friendly match in March. After that we have to wait till the end of the season in May to get the team together again. I think it will be a smart move if CAF can adopt Pinick’s recommendation on using the March window for World Cup preparations instead of playing AFCON qualifiers for a tournament that will be held in 2019. No doubt we’ll have friendly games and we will seek to use all available opportunities to improve the team.
If you must do well at the World Cup then you must prepare well and to prepare well, you must play the best teams. Argentina is one of the very best.
The coach has said the bulk of his team will be from the squad that won the WC ticket but are we considering players who were not involved in the qualifiers but who have something to offer?
I don’t want us to misunderstand the coach so maybe I should give you the context in which he’s talking. The coach has not ruled out any player who can improve this team going forward to the World Cup. If there’s any player that’s better than the ones we already have in the team, I’m sure the coach is willing to give them the chance to come and prove their mettle. He’s not ruled out anyone. The World Cup is still a long time away and we hope some new player will step up and have the required quality to be in the team. The team spots are still up for grabs and everybody must justify their inclusion.
Is the coach also considering recalling Vincent Enyeama?
As for Vincent Enyeama, his issue has been on for a long while and coach Gernot Rohr has made it very clear that he’s open to Vincent’s return if he rescinds his decision to quit the team and makes himself available for selection. He’s presently injured and in rehabilitation but gradually getting back into shape. If he gets back and finds a club, plays regularly for his club and makes himself available for selection, then he would be invited. We all know Vincent and his pedigree. He’s world class, one of Africa’s best, has experience from three World Cup tournaments and has won Man of the Match awards in World Cup games. So if he’s available, I’m sure the coach will be amenable to inviting him for the World Cup party. All of these is dependent on Vincent rescinding his decision to quit international football. For someone who’s had 100 caps for Nigeria, I’m not sure you can shut the door of the national team on a player like that if he’s available and willing to play.
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