- Niger in the same FIFA World Cup™ qualifying group as Algeria
- Cavalli previously coached Algeria and some of the country’s leading clubs
- The French coach discusses new mission and prospect of facing The Greens
In March this year, Jean-Michel Cavalli was en route to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport to fly to the Niger capital Niamey to sign a contract to coach the country’s national team. As fate would have it, the airport closed immediately due to coronavirus fears, and Cavalli was unable to travel. Football officials in Niger, however, were determined to secure his services, and so both parties agreed to wait a few more months before making the appointment official.
For the Frenchman, that vote of confidence was a positive sign. Niger’s insistence on sticking with him despite the delay, and his own desire to take up the role, boded well for a successful collaboration.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Cavalli discussed his new mission and the challenges ahead.
“I chose this country because I felt comfortable with the officials I dealt with,” he explained. “For my part, I always gave them priority despite the many offers I got. This mutual respect was a good starting point for me to coach the team.”
As with every other coach in Africa, the first objective when a contract is signed is to reach the CAF Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).
“Unfortunately, our team lost two crucial AFCON qualifying matches, which has harmed our chances of making the finals. But that doesn’t mean we won’t work hard to make amends. For me, it’s a bit like taking over at the halfway point. If this were still the beginning [of qualifying], the story would probably be different. I believe our chances of reaching the finals depend on the two upcoming matches against Ethiopia. But in addition to reaching the Africa Cup finals, our aim is to build a solid team to compete strongly in the World Cup qualifiers.”
The French coach was surprised with the high standard of football in Niger, where he is working for the first time. “In the months I spent at home before coming here, I had a chance to study the players and line-ups. I was astonished by the abilities I witnessed here, with some players easily capable of playing in Europe.”
Cavalli got off to a good start in the new job, winning his first two friendlies in October. “Although we had two players injured, my team was competitive and at the required level. In the space of three days, we won two friendly matches against Chad and Sierra Leone. Although these aren’t big names in Africa, I can say from experience that there are no small teams. You can see this in what happened to me when I coached Algeria – where the team were when I arrived and how far they went.”
The draw for FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ qualifying pitted Niger in a difficult group with reigning continental champions Algeria, Burkina Faso and Djibouti. Asked what he thought of this quartet, Cavalli replied: “We’re in a group containing three teams at about the same level. The fourth are the African champions. Our match against Algeria will be like a final, and they’ll undoubtedly be firm favourites. However, we have to give ourselves chances in these qualifiers. Even if it’s a one-in-a-thousand shot, we’ll go all out for it.
“My teams always present difficulties for opponents. Everyone remembers when I coached Algeria and we played great football in our friendlies against Brazil and Argentina in 2007,” he added.
Cavalli was in charge of Algeria for about two years, which will make the World Cup qualifying clash between the sides very special for him. “I don’t place that much importance on the fact that I coached Algeria and know their football very well. I’ll aim to do the impossible with my team because I love to compete. At any rate, we have nothing to lose in this group. Algerian football has developed a great deal in recent times, particularly at senior-team level and in terms of sporting infrastructure, and their players are at some of the world’s biggest clubs.”
Because his tenure in charge of Algeria only lasted from 2006 to 2007, Cavalli feels he missed a chance to take a side to the World Cup. Understandably, it’s something he would love to do with Niger now.
“Reaching the World Cup finals is the dream of every coach. If we manage to do this with Niger, it would be an historic achievement. I personally lost out on the chance to participate in the 2010 World Cup. I worked with Algeria for 22 months but left before the qualifiers kicked off. But my work there during that time still paid off.
“Before I left Algeria, I remember telling Hamid Haddadj, the president of the country’s football federation at the time, that the team were well prepared for the World Cup qualifiers, and that I’d be their number one supporter. I was almost certain that they’d qualify given the good work we’d done in the previous months. The proof was that we ended the first half of our friendly against Argentina leading 2-0 and the first half of the Brazil one drawing 0-0. These South American sides were ranked one and two respectively by FIFA at the time. So, I certainly dream of leading a team to the World Cup before I call time on my coaching career.”
But who are the favourites to represent Africa at Qatar 2022 in his opinion? “Algeria and Senegal are in the best shape to qualify, as well as Morocco, but I believe we’re in for a surprise or two in the upcoming qualifiers.”