National U-23 team coach, Samson Siasia, talks about the travails of the team before their bronze medal feat at the Rio 2016 Olympics, Katsuya Takasu’s largesse, Modibo Sani, Solomon Dalung and more in this interview with ’TANA AIYEJINA
You won silver in Beijing and ended with bronze at the just-concluded 2016 Olympics in Rio. How would you compare both events?
I guess the circumstances of both occasions were a little bit different; in Beijing, we had a very good camp site. We were adequately prepared and everything was fine. But this time around, things didn’t go well as we had planned. We didn’t have the best of preparations on the way to Brazil for the Games.
There were a lot of stories about your team’s preparations for the Olympics, especially when the squad travelled to Atlanta to intensify training for the Games. What was the true situation of things?
Are you talking about stories of how we suffered?
Well, I don’t think we want to talk about that again. It’s gone and let’s keep that aside.
What do you mean when you said it was crazy preparing for the Rio Olympics?
We were here in Nigeria and everybody saw what was going on; that we didn’t have a good preparation ahead of the Olympic Games. We lacked a lot of basic things that we could have had. There were delays with the flight arrangements, and travelling the same day we had a game and all that. Those are things that won’t allow a team to do anything. That means we are not well-organised. When those that we would be playing against arrived there (Brazil) a week before, we arrived on the day of our first match. Is that not crazy?
You know how the Nigerian system works having played for and coached the national teams. Was it easy trying to explain things to the players who didn’t know all these?
I don’t think anybody in his right sense of mind would want to pass through what we went through while we were preparing, right from the start. Two years ago, we had issues and things continued like that, even long before the Olympics – nothing changed. The only motivational speech we had (for the players) was ‘you are going to play on the biggest platform, Olympics is the biggest sporting event ever. You will have to sell yourselves.’ This speech was a sell-out to the players and that’s the truth. ‘You don’t have money, you suffered all through and you want to go out just like that without getting anything back?’ That was it. It was the speech that turned things around for the team.
Japanese plastic surgeon, Katsuya Takasu, donated $390, 000 to the squad after the bronze medal feat. Did the sports ministry officials and the Nigeria Football Federation request for the money to be sent to them?
No, not at all. The man brought the money by himself and he brought two cheques for me and the captain, Mikel (Obi). That was what happened.
Are you happy with the way the sports authorities went about the issue; some said the money should be investigated while an NFF member stated that it could trigger match-fixing.
That was embarrassing. What’s match-fixing? We finished playing against Japan and the man (Takasu) was so impressed at how we did it despite all we went through and the challenges we had. The man was just lending a hand. Having gone through all what we went through, someone appreciated us. Why should people misconstrue a kind gesture of someone who is not even a Nigerian? We need to appreciate the man. He read everything we went through – there was no money; we’ve not been paid; no daily allowances; nothing. The man was amazed. How could we suffer that way and then came out five hours before our first match and won against Japan, his country? That was the story. The man (Takasu) was happy that despite going through various difficulties, we still went ahead to beat Japan, who had been training together for three years. They spent a lot of money to prepare and come to Rio while we were suffering, not knowing what our fate would be. But, we won. That was actually what made the man to give us the money.
While in the United States, there were reports that the team played some test games ahead of the Olympics with different brands of jerseys due to the unavailability of kits from the federation. Is it true?
No, that’s not true. We had jerseys. In fact, that was the only thing we had. The new kits from Nike came in; so, we were properly dressed in Atlanta. We didn’t have problems in that area at all.
What about feeding and accommodation while in Atlanta?
The first 10 days were hell. There was an individual who wrote the NFF that he would take care of the team for 10 days before the NFF would take over for the next 20 days. He was the one that didn’t do a good job. I don’t think that should have been the NFF’s problem. We were supposed to play some friendly matches and it didn’t happen. That was why we had a lot of issues in Atlanta.
The team were left stranded for days, with the journey to Manaus, Brazil, looking impossible, before Delta Airlines came to the rescue. What exactly happened?
They (sports ministry) could have bought the tickets for us because they knew our programme. We were supposed to leave Atlanta on the 29th (of July) because our first game was on the 5th (of August). That would have given us a lot of time to get used to the weather and the place. But they never bought the tickets. And I don’t know what happened. It was until the last minute that they started doing what should have been done earlier. I think the match agent was supposed to buy some tickets and these tickets weren’t going to take us everywhere; we could not travel together with them (tickets) and that wasn’t good for the team. So, the routes of those tickets were not good. It made us arrive almost the same time we were to play. We spent like two days not knowing what was going on and they decided that we should use a chartered flight. However, sending the money to pay for a chartered flight became a problem. So, those were the issues that actually made us arrive late in Brazil.
There were also reports that the sports minister, Solomon Dalung, came to Atlanta and handed the team over to Mikel, which you were not happy about. Is it also true that Dalung called you but you refused to pick his calls?
No, that’s not what happened. He came to the US but he didn’t come to Atlanta. He came to watch the basketball team. He didn’t come to our camp.
So, Dalung never handed the U-23 team to Mikel?
No, he didn’t. He was talking to Mikel because he was the captain of the entire Nigerian Olympic team, I mean Team Nigeria, not just the football team. He was communicating with Mikel most of the time and not with me. It wasn’t that he handed over the U-23 team to Mikel, that’s not what happened.
The football federation withdrew your official car, after your wife was reportedly seen making use of it. How do you feel about this?
Even if it is her car or not, they gave the car to me and they should have waited for me to come back. It’s not nice. That’s not how you treat people. Even if it’s their car, they gave it to me. So, they should have allowed me to come back and they can have their car back. That’s not how you treat people that have been working and making sacrifices for this country. That’s not fair at all.
Will you still consider coaching or working for Nigeria at any level again?
Everybody heard what I said: I’m not done (with Nigeria) but my contract is over. That’s it. Not until they engage me again that I can decide to come or not.
Time and time again, we’ve seen the NFF owe local coaches for months, and pay their foreign counterparts better amount of salaries and on time. How do you see this?
I see it as disobeying the President’s (Muhammadu Buhari) orders. The President said we should patronise made-in-Nigeria goods but they (NFF) believe we are not good enough. They only come to us when they need us. And after using us, they dump us and get someone else. They’ve done that to me twice. That’s not fair. Maybe we are not good enough and that’s why they keep dumping us for who they want; but it’s not fair to me and other local coaches.
Have you been paid your five months’ salaries?
No. Up till now, I haven’t heard anything. I don’t know when they are going to pay.
Is there a letter or verbal assurances about when you will be paid?
There’s nothing like that. ‘We will pay,’ that’s what I got (from them), but there’s no date. So, I don’t know when I will get my money.
There have been posts on Facebook that you collected money from a player, Modibo Sani, to be part of the U-23 team to Brazil…
(Cuts in) I know the person behind it. He is (Shuaib) Gara-Gombe. I have done a lot for this country and I sacrificed myself. When someone gets injured, I pay. No player under me pays his way to anywhere, ask anybody. It’s not going to happen, not when I’m the coach. He’s trying to destroy a career I’ve built for over 10 years. That’s wickedness.
Can you then clarify how Sani got into the U-23 team and was later made the welfare officer of the team?
You should ask someone else that question. He (Sani) came to the team; he came in to support – we do a lot (of things) like that; some players come in and train with us – not that there was any assurance that he was going to play. He knew he wasn’t going to play.
After all the difficulties with the U-23 side, how would you describe your time in charge of the team?
I think it’s the most difficult ever; my mum was kidnapped and we managed to win the African championship in Senegal. When things like these happen, all I’m saying is that they should appreciate someone that sacrificed everything that ensured this country got to the Olympics. I saw on social media an NFF official saying he wants to destroy Samson Siasia’s career. Is that how you appreciate people? What have I done that anyone wants to destroy my career? All I did was to sacrifice everything I had. (Segun) Oduduwa got injured, I paid from my purse; it’s my money. And, it’s not just for one or two players. We didn’t have water to drink; we found a way to get water to drink because we wanted to make sure the players were perfect. They wanted to kick us out of the hotel, I begged the woman in the hotel so that we could stay before we got our tickets to travel. Is that how you treat someone that’s sacrificed everything he has for the country? I don’t think that’s right.
Your players had to wash and wear same set of jerseys at last year’s All Africa Games in Congo…
(Cuts in) We’ve been wearing one set of jerseys for two years. We used one set of jerseys for matches throughout the competition because we didn’t have any other set of jerseys. We played with one set of jerseys in Senegal (African U-23 championship) to qualify (for the Olympics). There are people that are wicked; they don’t see any good thing that comes out of your dedication and commitment towards trying to ensure that the country gets something back. Look at the final of the Olympics, after Brazil and Germany, the Nigerian flag was next. That means we’ve done well. The colours there were green, white, and green. I know Nigerians were happy about that and I thank them for their support – it was overwhelming.
At the African championship in Senegal, players allegedly threatened not to play the final game until the sports ministry flew in money to Dakar to pay their allowances and bonuses. What was the team’s situation before the last-minute solution?
Those things have been going on since we started. If we keep talking about them, we will never stop and nothing will happen. I think we should thank God for what he has done and we should appreciate our own; that is the most important thing. We don’t appreciate our people and that’s not good. It’s wickedness. But I thank Nigerians for being behind the team.
A release from the sports minister’s office stated that you thanked Dalung for his support for the U-23 team, when you paid him a visit with NFF general secretary, Mohammed Sanusi, after the Olympics. But critics say you wouldn’t do that…
(Cuts in) The minister said some things while we (U-23 team) were in America. I heard about all the stories. But he said he was sorry, that he didn’t mean to say those things. If a man comes out to tell you sorry, all you have to do is to forgive that person. The man admitted his mistakes and he said it himself. So, I have forgiven the minister. And after then, he asked Sanusi why he took the car away from me and he (Dalung) was angry. He said, ‘You cannot do things like that to someone that is working.’ He said he didn’t even care whatever it was. He also told Sanusi to make sure he paid us. So, I think the minister having been there for a while, has learnt from his mistakes. We all make mistakes. You can see from the last interview we had on TV, the way he spoke. Let’s give him a break. I have my own mistakes too. So, we need to move on and let’s see how he’s going to turn things around to have a better sports sector.
Local coaches including you were unable to qualify the national teams for next year’s AFCON, African U-17 and U-20 championships. Would you link that to NFF’s failure to take proper care of the coaches?
I don’t think so. Preparation is our biggest problem. If you don’t start on time, you don’t expect to get good results. That’s it. Football is not magic.