Nigeria 'careful but we are optimistic' after World Cup qualifying draw

Gernot Rohr: Cautious yet confident. EPA/YURI KOCHETKOV

Such is the state of Nigerian football at the moment that even something as benign as the draw ceremony for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, held in Egypt on Tuesday evening, came fraught with controversy.

Gernot Rohr, who coaches the Nigeria Super Eagles team and has been at every other draw ceremony since taking the job, was not present in Egypt. Instead, Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) general secretary Mohammed Sanusi represented Nigeria.

An NFF official told ESPN that the coach missed the ceremony because he was recovering from dental surgery.

"I am not going, but I hope to go for the Final Draw in Qatar," Rohr told ESPN when asked about it pre-draw, beginning with a jocular chuckle before lapsing into seriousness.

"I am OK now [from the surgery]. I have not been invited for the draw."

Which strikes as weird because it is the first time the coach has not been invited, after attending previous draws.

NFF vice president Shehu Dikko explained that it was CAF's responsibility to send invitations to two members of each federation to attend, usually the general secretary and coach.

A Confederation of African Football communications official told ESPN that three invitations were sent out per team, and it was up to each country to send whomever they wished, at their own cost. Rohr being invited was not up to CAF, but rather the NFF.

Rohr insists he never received an invitation, which has led to suggestions that his contract tiff with the NFF might have been the reason.

In any case, the ceremony was not going to stop because of Nigeria's domestic squabbles, and the Super Eagles were drawn in a largely straightforward group alongside Cape Verde, Central African Republic and Liberia.

Fans on social media were left rubbing their hands in glee after avoiding some of the more tetchy opposition that Pot 2 had to offer.

Not Rohr, mind.

"I saw the groups," Rohr told ESPN. "There are some very tough groups, when I see Cameroon and Ivory Coast together.

"Our group is also a tough group, because Cape Verde is a very good team. They have very good players playing in Portugal, some of them in France. So it will not be easy to beat this good team of Cape Verde."

The German is right to be wary.

Nigeria have met Cape Verde only twice, in 2013 and at the 2019 WAFU Cup of Nations. Both games were B internationals and both ended in a draw. The first was 0-0, the second, 1-1. The Blue Sharks prevailed 3-2 on penalty kicks last year to advance to the WAFU Plate semifinals while the Nigerians headed home.

Liberia are no easier. The Super Eagles have had their fair share of confrontations with the Lone Star, most recently the friendly in honor of Liberia President George Weah, in which the legend himself suited up.

An in-shape Weah was involved when the Super Eagles shared a 2002 World Cup qualifying group with Liberia; the Lone Star won 2-1 in Monrovia but lost 2-0 in Port Harcourt. In total, Nigeria lead the head to head with nine wins, two draws and three losses.

Rohr was in charge for the most recent of those Nigeria wins, played in Monrovia in 2018, and he rates Liberia highly.

"It was not easy against Liberia when we went there for the last match of the president. We won it, but it was not easy."

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Nigeria have never before played Central African Republic -- one of very few teams in Africa they have never met, a friendly or in competition -- and Rohr said, "They don't have anything to lose so that can make them play without fear and be very dangerous".

Cautious he may be about the threat that these teams pose, but Rohr says he and his team will do what it takes to overcome the challenge and win the group.

"It will not be easy. We must be very aware, very well prepared to finish first in the group. I think we can do it, but we must be in our top level and this group is not easy at all.

"All the teams are difficult top beat and nobody can say it is a good draw."

Rohr also took the opportunity to warn that his team would need to be very careful because they are now being seen as the favourites in the group "and it is always difficult to be favorites in the group.

"But we have a team which is able to do it, and I have confidence in my young team. We have still to work hard and to do well.

"We are careful but we are optimistic."

CAF's decision to flip the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying tournament means the first round of World Cup qualifying matches -- originally scheduled to be played in March -- will not be staged until early October.

For that reason, Rohr says he needs two keep his players focused on what is in front of them while he and his team do the heavy lifting required.

He added: "When I see my players, I will tell them it is not the moment yet to think of the World Cup because we have before that the Afcon qualifiers to play. We still have time.

"But to my staff, I say already to my analyser, my assistant, myself of course, search all the information you can find about Cape Verde and about the two other countries.

"So we are already in the preparation but the players, they have to focus on the matches in March against Sierra Leone."

Precedent suggests that Rohr and his wards will walk this group. Especially if they maintain the same cautiously confident approach that he has employed of respecting the opposition throughout his tenure.

"I am very confident but very careful at the same time," the coach said. "I am confident because our team is on the right way and they will progress.

"We have to work very hard, prepare well like we did the last edition. It is very important to start well. When you win the first game, it is very good. But I am confident because our team is young and has some players already with World Cup experience."