The former Nigerian forward has qualified Tanzania for a first African Cup of Nations tournament in 39 years, but he has no interest in talking about as an evaluation with his other accomplishments as a coach, such as winning the Under 17 World Cup with Nigeria’s Golden Eaglets in 2015.
‘Is it the greatest achievement (of my managerial career)’, he repeats the question to me. ‘Well, of course, it’s up to you journalists to know if it is the greatest.’ He just talks of being happy to have gotten the Taifa stars a ticket to Egypt, and to focus on continuing to develop.
‘I’m happy for the job that we’re doing. I’m happy for the Tanzanian people. I’m just doing what I know best. Hopefully we continue to grow from here. Hopefully we continue to learn. Hopefully we continue to have more knowledge about the game.’
Amunike speaks about not wanting to categorise himself.
‘I’m not here to look at what I’ve done’, he says. He just wants to focus on achieving, and comparing his triumphs to one another. ‘…when you’re doing what you love, and you’re having success, you’ll be happy about that’.
And the coach and his Tanzanian side are definitely jubilant over what they’ve done. They’re preparing for only their second ever AFCON tournament. It wasn’t plain-sailing; at the start of their sixth and final qualifying game in Group L, against Uganda, Tanzania were in third place, behind Lesotho on the head-to-head record.
That meant they needed to get a result against the table-topping Cranes, and with what was at stake, nerves wouldn’t have been a surprising thing.
But according to Amunike, there was no such thing, no fear or caution among his squad, but rather they had belief and confidence.
‘The mood was that we were confident about ourselves’, he says. ‘We knew that we needed just to win our game, since we’re aware that three teams, Tanzania, Cape Verde and Lesotho, were all fighting to qualify, so all what we needed was to win our game and get the eight points, and that’s exactly what we did. Whatever you’re doing, you must believe in yourself, even when people are having doubts on you, you must stick to your principles, you must stick to what you’re doing. You must look at the areas where you can improve yourself.’
Amunike speaks of Cape Verde and Lesotho being tough challenges to their qualification campaign. Cape Verde have risen from the being the unfancied side at the 2013 AFCON, where they got to the knockout phase to the surprise of many. Tanzania themselves seem like underdogs ahead of events in Egypt in June, but Amunike plays down talk of them being minnows.
‘Going into this AFCON, after a very long time, of course we need experience, we need to learn’, he points out. ‘But we’re not scared of going into the AFCON. We have worked hard to qualify, so we must also be ready to play among the big boys.
If you want to be a champion, you have to play all (kinds of) teams. So we’re aware about our position. All we need to do is to see how we can prove ourselves, how we can improve as a team, how we can improve as individuals to achieve our objectives.
We’ll see when the AFCON starts. It’s too early to say if we’re underdogs. The most important thing is that we have qualified, and that we’ll be taking part in the AFCON in Egypt’.
Qualifying for the Nations Cup with Tanzania has, almost inevitably, led to talk from some in Nigeria about lining up for the Nigerian national team job in the future.
Amunike, however, is leaving it to fate to decide, and is more than content in his current position.
‘I have a contract with the Tanzanian national team, and my duty as a professional is to see off my contract and contribute to the success of their football.
You can never tell what the future holds. If it pleases God that one day we’ll coach Nigeria, if not, God will always provide somewhere else. Nobody expected me to be in Tanzania.’
Amunike talks often in the collective, using ‘we’, to highlight that this achievements is by both the players, and the whole of the coaching staff, and achievement that pleases him in particular.
‘I’m happy that 55 million Tanzanians, that after so many years, they’ll be seeing their national team in the AFCON, they’ll be seeing their flag in Egypt, so I’m happy about that’.
The draw for the Nations Cup group stage will happen later this month, and when asked how he’d feel about facing Nigeria, Amunike chuckles, then brushes off whatever romanticism any potential meeting Gernot Rohr’s Super Eagles will bring.
‘We are there (at the AFCON) to face any team that comes our way, whether it’s Nigeria, whether it’s Egypt. It doesn’t matter. What matters is (that) we have qualified.
Whichever team comes our way, we’ll prepare ourselves to play with respect. But (after a 39-year wait), we’ll be ready to play’.
And he certainly knows a thing or two about being ready to play in the AFCON, having won the tournament with Nigeria in 1994.
Amunike was awarded as the best player on the continent that year as well, and he once said he’d have a Ballon D’Or if he didn’t begin his career in Nigeria. But he describes that his ‘personal feeling and personal opinion’ and not an indictment on football in the country.
His words also portray an image of someone who’s moved on from those comments, keen to point out that what matter now is developing as a manager, to learn, acquire and impact ‘knowledge in the new generation’ for Tanzania.
So, Tanzania are in the continental front, how would that impact the country’s development in football terms? The former Albacete player doesn’t shirk the fact that this is pivotal to the country’s progress, and he notes on seeing ‘how the national team can grow’. He also focuses on what his side ‘can give to the AFCON’, rather what they supposedly can’t achieve.
Amunike politely excuses himself afterwards, as there are pressing issues to attend to, and who can begrudge him that. The Nations Cup is less than three months away. There is work to be done