Bankole Olowookere, head coach of the Flamingos, talks about guiding the team to a historic third place at the 2022 U-17 Women’s World Cup in India and lessons learnt from the competition, in this interview with EBENEZER BAJELA
Congrats on the third-place finish in India, Nigeria’s best outing ever. What does winning bronze mean to you and Flamingos?
First, I want to thank God for the opportunity and the success, I also appreciate the Nigeria Football Federation who thought it wise to give me the opportunity and also my technical crew because a tree doesn’t make a forest.
Talking about winning what the sports minister called ‘golden bronze’, it showed how people valued what we did in India and I felt very happy and great as a coach because I never thought never would appreciate the pride that we brought to the nation. While going to the World Cup I made up my mind that I was going to make history, I know making it past the quarter-final would have made history but deep inside of me the target was to win the World Cup which I shared with some of my colleagues but we kept it to ourselves. The third place against Germany was a dramatic and very entertaining one but I am delighted with how it went and glad that I was able to make the country proud on the global stage.
The third-place win over Germany, a lot of analysts had written the girls off after their defeat to the Germans in the group stage. What did the magic against the European champions?
My number one philosophy as a coach is determination. Because when you are determined you can cross any obstacle that comes your way. What also worked for us was our discipline and this comes in all ramifications. The Germans were not that fantastic in the first game they won to make people write us off. A lot of people were focused on the name and were shouting German machines but this is what I leveraged on and I was able to work on the psyche of the players making them understand that their opponents were just humans like them. I told them people were only afraid of the Germans because of the x-factors they put into the game and I urged them to do the same. It didn’t work out in the first game but we were able to build on that in the second game.
Beating US., did you think your girls had what it took to overcome the Americans before the clash?
At the tournament in India, the bookmakers did not include Nigeria among the favourites to win the World Cup; rather there were USA, Germany, Brazil and Korea. In their rankings the Americans were the number one favourites and the moment we realised that we were going to face them because initially, we thought we would be facing Brazil, we were determined because we knew we had to surpass the quarter-final stage.
On my own part, I just trained the players to create a lot of goal-scoring chances until we know we are scoring goals. While preparing for the tournament, I did my research and I saw that there was a tournament that Nigeria didn’t score a single goal and that was also the same reason we didn’t qualify for one of the World Cup editions. I learnt from others’ mistakes and that was how we were able to build on ours.
Against Colombia, it was glaring that your players were afraid of taking penalties after the first five players took theirs. Was it that your team only trained for five kicks?
In the past, I watched this World Cup from my television set but now I play an active role and I can tell you I know the difference. If you are not in camp you will not understand certain things. Before we left Nigeria we practiced penalty taking and during our tour, we did the same and we moment we got to the knockout phase, we started practicing it again.
We have our specialist who also helps in training and I can tell you all the girls practised penalty taking but these girls are young and what happened against Colombia was beyond my imagination and I also learnt my lesson from it. What affected the team was the last player that lost her penalty because during training she often converts all her kicks and I think that affected the players because their hope was dashed by the one who happened to be their best penalty taker and they got demoralised.
You were always praying during critical moments. How religious are you?
I can’t even explain how religious I am. I know that my actions and works speak for me. the only thing is that whatever I have achieved in life I return all glory to God but for my actions on the pitch of play I know I have tutored the players and the moment they are on the pitch there was little I could do and I can only talk to God to intervene.
What people saw on the pitch is just a little fraction of how hard I pray because in my closet I pray more and harder than that.
How did you and the girls fashion out the military salute celebration?
(Laughs) I know a lot of people are interested in this question and this is something I have tried to avoid telling people. The truth is you cannot give what you don’t have and I can tell you that nothing just happened without practising it. As a grassroots coach, there is a way to relate with the players because there are times these girls get homesick and so I try to create some level of excitement in the dressing room and on the training ground.
It was out of an exciting moment during training that we came up with the idea. First, I asked them how they tend to celebrate when they scored but they all ganged up and said they won’t tell me until we get to the pitch of play. But I already knew what I wanted and that is to salute. And since they refused to tell me I told them that whenever they scored they should run down to me and salute.
The concept was that they will salute me for a job well done while I reciprocate and together we all return it to the whole Nigerians who stood by us. Salute is a sign of respect and it means we are respecting our country. That’s how the celebration came about and not because I had a military background.
How far do you think these girls can go if properly nurtured?
The key word here is properly nurtured. If these players are properly monitored and taken care of I believe they can go far. This is football and the truth is we might not hear about some of them again because their love for the game may no longer be there and all they want to do are to travel abroad and survive. While in India I told them that I was going to return them home and hand them over to their coaches because we know how things are.
These girls are still young and the kind of friends and advice they take will determine how well they will do and that’s why personally, apart from being their coach I also talk to them like a father but I can tell you that they have the quality to go far.
What was your most challenging moment during the World Cup?
The only challenge I had at the World Cup was something that was kept in my mind all through the tournament. I was determined to go and win the World Cup even though I didn’t say it out in the media aside from my technical crew and players. Not winning the World Cup hurt a bit but I was divine and I can say everything happens for a reason. I also learnt my lesson that if I work harder I can get better results and I will remain adventurous because I know I am going to win the World Cup and that’s my only challenge.
A video went viral with your girls dancing with the Germans after the third-place game. How do you feel seeing such a scenario?
I can tell you for real that it is not easy to lose a match and start dancing with the one that defeated you and that goes to show that football is not a do-or-die affair. Prior to the game, I said during a press conference that football should be something of a family affair and I was happy that something like that later played out.
Some of these players could be teammates in any club, why do we need to be enemies? The Germans were the first to come to where we were asking to exchange jerseys and even I exchanged jerseys with them. They cherished our jersey and I am proud to have been able to achieve that.