World Soccer: You were appointed in late February. How much of an impact can you realistically expect to make in just a few months?
Of course time is short but there is enough for me to assess the players available and have my philosophy accepted by the squad. In warm-up games and a pre-World Cup training
camp much can be achieved, believe me. I would like to think I proved myself a competent coach during a decade in charge of Sweden. I led them to five consecutive World Cups and European Championships and I’ve a name for team building, for making the most of the personnel at my disposal. I know international football.
How disappointed were you that Sweden failed to qualify for this World Cup?
It was tremendously frustrating. We had grown used to featuring at the big tournaments. Normally we are so efficient in qualifying. This time we just could not get the ball in the net.
How much did you know about Nigeria’s players before taking on the job?
Naturally I was familiar with the Nigerians playing in Europe and saw the team in action at the recent African Nations Cup. But obviously there were gaps and I’ve been striving to build up an in-depth grasp of every possible candidate for the squad, as well as getting to know my assistants.
What were your first impressions?
I saw a team with a great deal of physical presence and individual skill. I’d go as far as to say that, man for man, Nigeria have more pure technical talent than most. I don’t think we need worry about a lack of flair and match-winning ability.
You are known as a pragmatist who places much emphasis on organisation and tactical discipline. Are Nigeria lacking in this department?
Any team aspiring to win must have a sound framework. That means players who have good physical conditioning and are prepared to work hard, plus a fully functioning team unit, where everyone does their job. Barcelona do this. So do Brazil. We must be the same.
Certain players have been accused of not being committed to the team…
The prospect of a World Cup, of being in the global spotlight, never fails to motivate players. In the unique case of a player not showing enough passion and enthusiasm for the cause, he will not be picked. Simple as that.
What would be your realistic objective?
I see no point in being unambitious. We have the qualities to go well into the knockout phase. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t all come together. Nigeria does have some astonishing players and then there is the advantage of playing in Africa.
Your first game against Argentina will be vital…
Certainly the first match of a tournament can condition the rest. Argentina have fantastic individuals, but I’m not fearful or intimidated by the thought of facing Messi, Tevez, Higuain, Aguero and all the others. I think I know how to stifle Argentina. Sweden did it at the 2002 World Cup. You couldn’t say we had the better players but we still drew 1-1 with them. Messi is extraordinary, but Argentina is not Barcelona.
What about your other first-round opponents?
I have a lot of respect for the work of Otto Rehhagel with Greece. They play tight, are spirited and are not in the habit of selling themselves short. South Korea’s strength is their energy and total commitment. You have to match them there.
Who would you tip to win the world Cup?
Even with some injury problems, Spain look so strong. Brazil too. After letting themselves down at the last World Cup, they will be much more professional and single-minded this time. As far as a surprise packet goes the USA are well-drilled and great competitors. They will be hard to deal with.