With the finals of the CAF Africa Cup of Nations just over a month away, Niger coach Gernot Rohr is shaping his team's final preparations ahead of their second appearance at the continental finals. At the end of November, Rohr undertook a speedy trip south to see for himself the facilities in South Africa for the 19 January - 10 February finals, before rushing back for a friendly game in Morocco.
FIFA.com caught up with the coach and asked him about the preparations for the tournament.
Turning disadvantage to advantage
For Rohr, the 2013 finals will be the second time in a row that he will be involved in the showpiece of African football. But unlike earlier this year in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, when his Gabon team were considered one of the outside favourites, the Franco-German and his Niger side will arrive in South Africa as one of the rank outsiders. In contrast to their opponents in Group B of the competition - Ghana, Mali and Congo DR - the Mena have only a handful of professionals who ply their trade in European leagues, and those typically play for clubs in the lower tiers in France, Belgium and Sweden.
The majority of Rohr's squad will come from local clubs in Niger and in other African countries, with Ouwo Moussa Maazou being the only recognisable name. The explosive 24-year-old forward has played for Monaco, CSKA Moscow and Rohr's previous club Bordeaux, and he is currently with Tunisian team Etoile du Sahel.
Rohr, however, refuses to see his squad's inexperience at the highest level as a disadvantage. "If it is a disadvantage, it is something that we can change into an advantage,” he insisted. “We are a real team without any stars. All players have the same goal and objective and there are no big egos involved. The players are highly motivated and the fact that all of them are keen to play for a big club, preferably in Europe, acts as a further motivating factor.”
Rohr, who remains a legend in Bordeaux - the club for whom he played over 350 matches, winning three French championships and whom he took to the UEFA Cup final as coach - is aware that he will have a very difficult undertaking to escape the so-called Group of Death. "It is a very difficult group. Even though we are huge outsiders we are not without hope of advancing. We are ranked only 30th in Africa, but we have also managed to climb 30 places in the world rankings, so everything will be possible. Our first match against Mali will be very important and if we want to do well, a good start is paramount."
Stunning Guinea to book the ticket
The former defender took over the Niger coaching reins in September and immediately faced a daunting task as the Mena took on fancied Guinea for a place at the Nations Cup finals. The Syli Nationale were ranked 21 places higher than their opponents and won the first match 1-0 at home. "But we always believed in our chances," Rohr said. "The return leg went as planned, we were strong in defence and waited for our opportunities. After the break we upped the tempo and fully deserved the 2-0 victory, which took us to South Africa."
The team has also managed a 4-3 victory against Liberia and held west African giants Senegal to a 1-1 draw in friendly internationals. "These results were important, as the team had failed to win and score goals in the games before. I am satisfied with the way the team is developing," Rohr said. "The atmosphere in the team is terrific and even though the local-based players had not played league matches for several weeks before reporting for international duty, they did very well. Although they did not have much match practice, we managed to overcome that with a lot of training."
Rohr coached the Gabonese national side for two years and helped them equal their best ever showing at the AFCON by reaching the quarter-finals. Comparatively, he and his new team will be flying below the radar. "Playing with Niger in South Africa will be very different than playing with Gabon at the finals at home. Then, we had all the fans behind us, but it could also be an advantage as there will be little pressure on us."
Rohr said that another difference between Gabon and Niger were the resources available. "With Gabon there were virtually unlimited resources, but Niger is also trying very hard. We had a reception with the state president and they hired a plane for us to take us to the game in Guinea. It was an army plane and all the players sat like soldiers in the Hercules. I sat upfront next to the pilot! But we got there safely and now we are all looking forward to making the trip to South Africa."