I know how to manage pressure from 200 million Nigerians – Peseiro

Super Eagles coach, José Peseiro, whose contract with the NFF expired on Thursday, in this interview with Goal.com talks about the pressure of managing Nigeria’s national team, his experience at the last Africa Cup of Nations, his relationship with Africa and his future with the team

First of all, how are you? Were you able to rest a little after the African Cup of Nations?

Yes, I rested and I am still resting. My contract ends in two days. The AFCON was an exhausting tournament, I must admit. We did a good job, me, the staff and the players. There was a lot of energy expended.

It was an AFCON with a lot of strong emotions. How did you experience this competition on a personal level?

It was a fantastic experience. It was my first AFCON. Some of my colleagues told me that it is different from other tournaments. The context changes. And I felt it. It was full of emotions. The public’s enthusiasm is unique. There was also some great competition. All the teams and players gave their all for their country. And African football was able to display all that it has in qualities. There was also a lot of pressure on the teams, not just from their fans but from their countries as well.

And what differentiates the AFCON from other tournaments you have played like the Copa America (with Venezuela) or the Asian Cup (with Saudi Arabia).

In terms of atmosphere, it is incomparable. Already, with Venezuela, there was none at all because we were playing during the Covid period. The stadiums were empty. In Asia, it’s different. I believe that here in Africa, there is greater proximity with the supporters or even the media. Which makes it more alive. But that also means there’s more pressure. And when it comes to the football produced, it’s different too, that’s for sure. The level of commitment and standards are different. This can be seen in particular with matches that are more open. Even teams that are less technically well equipped manage to provide beautiful football through the enthusiasm and commitment they offer. And then, it must be said that there are very good players in Africa. 90 per cent of them play in Europe, in very good championships. And the Europeans may be pretending not to be interested in this tournament, but I can tell you that they all have their eyes on it.

You reached the final with Nigeria. Did you think you could get this far before the tournament?

From the first day when the president of the federation called on me and I took a look at this team and the matches they played, I told everyone that I want to win the next AFCON because I was certain that we could do it. I believed it, my staff believed it, my players too, but not the people outside. And I’m happy because we did a fantastic job reaching the final. It has been shown that Nigeria still belongs to the best nations on the continent. And who wants to fight for trophies. On the other hand, I’m also sad because we lost.

Precisely, the feeling which predominates between satisfaction, pride and frustration in relation to the fact of not having won, which is it?

After the final, I was definitely sad. Because we are competitors and as soon as I took charge of this team, I wanted to win this tournament. We wanted to win it. During my first meeting with the players, which I did in the United States for my first match, I told them during my presentation that I came here to win the next AFCON. And since we didn’t manage to do it, I can’t be happy. But on the other hand, when I saw the way the Nigerian people and government welcomed us when we returned to Abuja after the AFCON, I could only be proud of what we achieved. People were satisfied and they thanked us. Everyone in the streets, and even the media, made us understand that they were happy with us. And that’s a good feeling. They saw our matches and they know what we did. We fought until the end and against the very big selections. We were not favorites at the start, unlike Ivory Coast or Senegal. And teams like Egypt, Algeria, Ghana and Cameroon, with very rich squads, came out quite early. We reached the final. So I am satisfied. But the satisfaction is not complete because we wanted to win.

What did you lack to win the competition?

There are two things. First there is the fact that Ivory Coast reached the final of the competition having avoided the worst each time. They were almost eliminated three times. In the final, they were more liberated. They weren’t under as much pressure as at the start of the competition. Second thing, I think the energy there was that day in the stadium touched us. If I had to rate our performance, it was perhaps our worst game. In previous matches, we have always been in control and we have created a lot of opportunities. But in this match, even at 1-0 for us, we were feverish. The atmosphere penalised my players. We didn’t have the same abilities. There were too many lost balls. If I had to analyse, I would say that two or three of my players played at their true level. They wanted to do their best, but they couldn’t.

How to explain this nervousness?

I’m sure if another final was played a week later, we would have won it. Because many players have never had the experience of a AFCON final. 14 of our players have never played in a AFCON final phase. While the Ivorians had experienced players. We tried to play down the event, trying to forget the pressure and the responsibilities that weighed on our shoulders, but it wasn’t enough. Yes, the final is about winning and we must seize this opportunity. But we still felt nervous, including in the semi-final against South Africa. Once again, the atmosphere made the environment not conducive to a great performance from us. And it’s also my responsibility, I should have made sure that they were more liberated. And I am still very happy with them and very proud. They did a great job. And no one can blame them. This new final will perhaps take place next year in Morocco.

How did you manage to transform a selection that was in difficulty before the competition into a team that was almost an African champion? What was the method?

The matches before the tournament were used to help the team progress. And despite this, we only lost to Guinea at home. And during a match where we created a lot of opportunities. In qualifying for the World Cup, it’s true that it wasn’t good. Against Lesotho, it was the same thing, we dominated a lot and they scored on one of their only two shots of the match. Against Zimbabwe, the conditions were bad. Many parameters impacted our performance there. Then, in our preparation for this tournament, I chose a different way to play. With my staff, we realized that we were playing offensively in our 4-4-2 system, that we were creating a lot of chances but that we were conceding avoidable goals on semi-chances. I felt that our team needed more solidity. More confidence in our defensive work and our organization.

And how did you go about making your team more balanced?

So I chose differently. We opted for 4-3-3 and 3-4-3 systems. We started working on these two diagrams in Abu Dhabi during our internship. And the guys very quickly understood what we wanted to do. From the first match against Equatorial Guinea, even if we didn’t win, it bore fruit. They put into practice what we had worked on. Everyone got into tune, following the offensive and defensive instructions to the letter. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to work on the offensive aspect a little more. Defensively, there was nothing to say. The guys understood everything well. We were perfect until the final, where unfortunately two mistakes cost us dearly. And once again, I put it down to pressure. In 3-4-3, we played very well and it was best suited to our team. With wingers who help our attackers, and a 3-man defense which maintains our balance. And I told them that this system will allow us not to concede too many goals and to score one. This is what we did in the final at the start, by scoring first. It was very hard to create chances against us. But once again, offensively, we weren’t 100% of what we could do. I would say only 70 per cent. We would have needed a little more time to be completely up to speed with this plan.

Were you surprised by the level shown by some of your players during the competition? I’m thinking in particular of Lookman or goalkeeper Nwabali?

I don’t like to talk too much about individual performances. I prefer to talk about collective performances. Well, there is Victor Osimhen who didn’t score a lot, but what a collective job he did! Everyone talks about his ability to finish plays, but we don’t talk enough about the efforts he makes for the team. Overall, our team did an excellent job. So yes, Nwabali was excellent, making many decisive saves, but it’s not just him. It was a fantastic performance from everyone. Even the attackers contributed to our good defensive performance.

So there was a good group spirit…

Yes and I am very satisfied, even with those who have not played. They were all magnificent. Because to reach the final of such a tournament, everything must be perfect. You have to train well at 25, have a good atmosphere on and off the pitch. The key to our success was the excellent collective state of mind we had. Whether it’s from those who played a lot, those who played less or those who didn’t play at all. Everyone was impeccable. Nobody complained. Of course, there were some who were sad because it’s not easy to be in a big tournament and not play. But everyone sacrificed themselves for the collective. During training, they put themselves at the service of others. Even if they wanted their places, they helped them. In the investment, for 40 days, everyone was perfect. And it’s not easy to be during this whole period, especially when you are away from your families. They were resistant.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. How do you manage popular pressure when you are Nigeria coach?

For me, considering my age and the experience I have, it’s not that difficult. I prepare in advance. I knew it. The media and social networks can have a positive side for our lives, but sometimes it is negative. But we have to be understandable. And also accept it, because we can’t change anything. Sometimes it wrongly criticizes us and it’s not pleasant, and it’s not only in football that we see this. But I can bear it. I never respond to criticism or fake news. It’s not easy playing for the Super Eagles. It’s a heavy jersey to wear. Not like the others. You have 200 million Nigerians behind you. And who put pressure on you and complain. Sometimes they also use bad terms when talking about players. Against me too, but I know how to manage. On the other hand, when it comes to the players, it upsets me. Because the players feel it and they suffer from it.

Are you trying to protect them from criticism?

Yes, by talking to them and telling them not to pay too much attention to it. There is often fake news coming from our country and I don’t know why. And to this is added the pressure that their own family puts on them. It is our role, with all my staff, to put them at ease and encourage them not to give importance to what is being said. And it’s not just criticism that can be dangerous. When people praise you and congratulate you, you can also lose your ground. You are in the clouds and you think you are too beautiful and that is also the best way to fall. You have to find the right balance and it’s not easy in football, especially for young players who have never set foot in Africa. Mental trainers are also there for that. And we, the coaches, protect them from that, by saying “only listen to us”. And my staff helped me a lot. My captains too, like Troost-Ekong, Omeruo and Musa. I asked them at the beginning to explain and show me how the players reason and how to adapt and what strategy to choose for everything related to the selection, not just the footballing side.

Seeing other national selections approach you, must that be flattering? Surely you are not insensitive?

Yes it’s good. Especially now and after this tournament. We lost in the final, but everyone recognizes our very good work. But it’s also thanks to the players and we can’t do anything without them. We are only coaches, we are not geniuses. I am happy. I am grateful to them and also to the staff. It’s hard work and it’s even harder in Africa. The players believed in us and gave their best, even those who didn’t play. And I apologize to those I was unable to satisfy, particularly in terms of playing time. I have always worked and chosen for the best in the national selection. If I could, I would have put 25 players on the field each time. Because they all had the potential to play. Thanks to them.

Do you enjoy the work of a coach more than that of a club coach?

These are different contexts. I like both. Before, I liked clubs more because we are in contact with the players on a daily basis. But I adapted to this new role as coach. I would say that I love both jobs equally. Coaching also means choosing players, watching a lot of matches throughout the week. But in both cases, we remain a coach. It’s the best activity in the world. It’s very motivating and it gives us a lot of emotion. In fact, the most important thing for me is the project.

What can we wish you for the future?

Earn. I would like to play in the World Cup, I would like to work in England, work in Brazil… I have already been to many countries. Nine countries and four continents. All the experiences I’ve had, I’ve enjoyed. Because there were connections and emotions, even in the teams where we did not have good results. I would like to continue working, with projects where we will be able to aim for success. And where I will continue to do my job because I love football.

Source: The Punch


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