To hear his players talk about him, you would think Nigeria coach Samson Siasia was a father, older brother or favourite uncle. "He's the best," beams Solomon Okoronkwo, while Victor Obinna can not hide his admiration for the former French and African club champion, who represented his country at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™, saying: "He's a legend; when he talks we all listen."
FIFA.com sat down for an extended and exclusive interview with the former Super Eagle on the eve of a classic Men's Olympic Football Tournament final with fancied Argentina.
FIFA.com: Here you are in the gold-medal match. What are your impressions of the team's performances so far?
Samson Siasia: We started a little shaky with our draw against the Netherlands, but since then my players have begun to listen to me a little more closely and we're defending better and scoring goals. I'm happy with our form right now going into the gold-medal game with Argentina.
You'll be familiar with Lionel Messi from when you coached Nigeria's U-20 team against Argentina in the final of the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2005. How do you stop a player like that?
Everybody knows about Argentina's players, about Messi. But we can't get caught up and I won't be putting anyone on his shoulder because that never works. We have to be careful not to commit the kinds of fouls we did in 2005 [fouls on Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero earned Argentina penalties en route to victory in the FIFA U-20 World Cup decider]. So we need to be careful, but we also have to go and intimidate them, put a body on them and let them know we're there. As long as we attack with speed like we have so far and everybody does his job, we'll be ready to go.
You started with a goalless draw against the Dutch, but your strikers have come good since then...
We've been scoring some good goals, especially against Belgium [in a 4-1 semi-final win]. I'm happy with that. I would still say that we're a little jittery in front of goal. But we're working on that and I think we just need the boys to stay calm and focus on taking their chances quickly, but not rushing them.
Everyone was talking about the Argentina-Brazil semi-final as the 'real final.' Does it help to go in as perceived underdogs?
It's good to be going in as underdogs, of course! If you look at the polls, like 90 per cent think Argentina will win. That couldn't be better for us. The pressure will all be on them. We have good players and Argentina have good players. The difference is, all the pressure will be on them.
The players may not be under pressure, but you, as coach, are under tons of it back home in football-mad Nigeria. How do you handle it?
I handle it as best I can, and keep focussed on the job I have to do here.
Is the spirit in the team as high as it seems from the outside?
I've never known team spirit like what we have in this team. We have
this bond together that is something special. We've been through hell together, so to speak. A lot of these boys come from very tough pasts and very difficult circumstances, and here we are playing for a gold medal at the Olympics. We've suffered hardship individually and as a team, and we lost a few players along the way, but we are stronger for it.
Are the boys aware of just how big a moment this is?
The players know this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for them. In fact, it's even rarer than that. Most players never get the chance to play for a gold medal. They know that they'll never have this one back and they know how heavy it all is. If they win gold, their names will live on in Nigeria even after they die.
What makes African players - and Nigerian players in particular - special?
In Nigeria kids grow up playing for fun in the streets with their friends. They learn to express themselves early and it's that sense of individualism and creativity that makes the African players so special and so unique. There is a lot of that spirit in this team here in China. They play from their own past and with their own sense of self.
Which has been Nigeria's best game so far in China?
It would have to be the one against the Belgians (semi-final). They took the Italians apart in the game before that, playing a man down. We shocked them 4-1, we just put pressure on them all the time and it could have been 6-1. We did make a stupid mistake to concede the free-kick that led to their goal, but this was a good game for us. I was pleased. Hopefully though, we've saved the best for last.