Two African teams progressed beyond the group stage at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013, with Ghana and Nigeria advancing from their respective sections. Both regular outsiders at this level, the pair have something else in common too, their campaigns being helmed by charismatic leaders of men who were once talented players themselves.
Ghana‘s Sellas Tetteh represented iconic club Hearts of Oak and several Nigerian outfits before separate spells in charge of his country’s U-17, U-23 and U-20 sides over the past decade. The 56-year-old’s finest hour came in 2009, when he led the U-20s to the world title in Egypt. As for John Obuh, he came tantalisingly close to clinching a global crown in the same year, when he steered Nigeria‘s U-17s to the final of the FIFA U-17 World Cup on home soil. The erstwhile forward will not get a chance to better that achievement at Turkey 2013, however, as his side were eliminated by Uruguay in the last 16, and he has now stepped down as Nigeria‘s U-20 coach.
Despite that disappointment, the man famous for his flamboyant headgear – wearing a Stetson in Colombia and beret in Turkey – is not about to give up his convictions. Like Tetteh, whose charges are still in the hunt for U-20 glory, the 53-year-old is a man of steadfast principles. Former team-mates at Nigerian club Julius Berger, the two men were therefore excellent company when they sat down with FIFA.com for a frank and passionate discussion of the tournament, their own teams’ performances and African football in general.
FIFA.com: Gentlemen, what were your respective goals when the FIFA U-20 World Cup began?
Sellas Tetteh (ST): The development of the players. For us, the situation has now changed a bit as we’re in the quarter-finals and we want to win. It’s a learning process for the boys and for the coach. Our goal is still development, but it’s also important to go all the way in the tournament. We’re trying to combine the two.
John Obuh (JO): It’s an important competition because if you don’t do things well at this level, you won’t go on to succeed at the level above. It’s a final hurdle before joining the elite. There are a lot of players who will move from the U-20 team to the senior team, so it’s important to perform well.
What do you think players learn in an environment like this?
ST: If you look at the eight teams still left, we’re the side that had the most difficult start. But my players battled their way through with a lot of spirit. They’ve learned that in football nothing is ever over until the final whistle. That’s an important lesson.
JO: For us, the situation is a little different as we’ve been eliminated. The players need to understand, in particular, that in tournaments like this it’s the referee who decides everything. Whatever they may be feeling, it’s the referee who has the final say, and that’s just the way it is. The referee has his reasons, and he’s doing the best he can as well. In the context of that match [against Uruguay], the lads needed to stay calm and not react too quickly – but human nature is what it is.
You have both been involved in several international tournaments as coaches, and no doubt experienced a whole range of emotions. Which was the greatest challenge?
JO: For me, this tournament has undoubtedly been the most difficult. We had a lot of pressure on us to get results, so we had to build a team with that in mind. It’s a real challenge to combine building for the future with getting results in the immediate present.
ST: I’d say the U-20 World Cup in 2009. Other than a draw against Uruguay, we won all our matches. It was a challenge to stay at the same high level. In contrast, here we had difficulties to begin with, and we got off to a strange start. But I’ve enjoyed that too – it’s just different. Some other teams have already reached their peak and are on the way down again. In our case, we’re getting stronger and stronger. We need to maintain and control that progress, and we’ll see how that works out against Chile.
In a tournament like this, do you let your players go out and make the most of being in the host country, or do you prefer to keep a close eye on them?
ST: It depends. You need a little of both. I want my players to be happy – that’s fundamental. They need to enjoy themselves, but everything has to be in moderation. They need a leader – me – because that’s how you get the best out of them. The relationship between players and coach is very important.
At this level, do you think it is more important for the players to develop psychologically or to improve their football?
JO: The psychological aspect is crucial and that’s what you can have the most influence on. The goal is to make sure that, later on, they’re strong enough mentally to get through the difficult moments that inevitably come. This is the best time to talk to them, explain this crucial side of football and make them understand that everything is linked: you have to be strong in your mind as well as physically fit.
ST: Both aspects count. What’s great when you work with youngsters is the satisfaction you get from watching them grow and transform. Some of my former players still come to see me and that fills me with joy.
Are there differences between African, South American and European teams at this age, and if so what are they?
ST: Elsewhere, development is fundamental. In Africa, we’re not quite there yet and that makes things more difficult. But we’re determined. We can battle and we’re passionate, but sometimes I get the impression that African players don’t have the same tactical instincts. If they get the chance to go and play in Europe, though, their passion and determination combined with the collective discipline there makes for a wonderful cocktail.
JO: For me, there are a lot of differences. African players have technical qualities, there’s no doubt about that, but they lack collective discipline. That’s something that’s tough to teach them because they believe so much in their own personal talent – too much, in fact, because you see matches where the individual takes precedence over the team. European sides are more respectful of the instructions they get and, as a result, they obey the tactics decided on at the start until the end of the game.
You both played the game yourselves. Has that helped you to be better coaches?
JO: If you played at a certain level, there’s no question that it helps you become a coach. It’s like a child who watches his dad and tries to take something on board that’ll help him grow; later on, that child will try to pass on his own knowledge and experience.
ST: Absolutely. I remember very well what my coaches said to me and I pass that on to my boys in my own way. Sometimes I say to my team: “What I’m saying to you now is something I was taught 20 years ago.” But just because you were a good player doesn’t mean you’ll be a good coach. You need a lot of passion, humility and stamina.
What do you remember about playing together?
ST: Ah, he was a very talented guy, very powerful. Us Ghanaians used to go and play in Nigeria because it was our Eldorado at the time. We experienced some great moments together at Julius Berger – we really enjoyed ourselves a lot.
JO: He was one of the best midfielders of his era, a very good player. I was a forward and he gave me a lot of good passes, and it was a real pleasure to play together. Plus he’s still my friend, which is what matters most.