Winfried Schäfer from Germany has been Cameroon national coach since September 2001. The 53-year-old and his team intend to avenge themselves at the FIFA Confederations Cup in Paris, Lyons and St-Etienne from 18 to 29 June 2003 for their disappointing showing at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™.
By Hardy Hasselbruch
FIFA Magazine: Cameroon are taking part in the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup as African champions. What does this event mean to you?
Winfried Schäfer: Initially I regarded it with scepticism but now I rate it higher. Only top teams will be taking part so it promises to be a worthwhile event. My players can show just what they are capable of. It will be different from the World Cup last year, when we arrived five days late and dropped out far below par. Now the players will be able to make up for it. This Confederations Cup is a contest of prestige.
How are you hoping to keep your players fit during the tournament, considering that the league championships end in May for the majority of professionals, most of whom are playing in Europe?
The timing is not ideal but it need not be dramatised. We’ll be meeting up in Cameroon for practice sessions, as we normally do before a competition. We also owe it to the local fans. We’ll be flying to France on 9 June and then have ten days in which to train. That should be long enough, even though we are reorganising the team and no longer have such experienced players as Mboma, Laurén and Kalla to rely on.
Do you also regard the tournament in France as an opportunity to absolve the disappointing group round at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™?
Absolutely. The tournament will also serve as a stage for my players. Some of them aren’t happy with their clubs so they’ll be in the spotlight in France and can draw attention to themselves. They’ll be able to make up for what they missed out on in Japan in 2002.
What status does the Confederations Cup have in Cameroon?
It is very highly regarded. Every international has enormous status over there, even if it is against Madagascar or Tunisia. But when a team is being rebuilt and young players being tried out, results are not always top priority. But the outcome is still important.
You and your team have only played three matches since the 2002 World Cup. Is that enough?
No. After being eliminated from the World Cup on 11 June 2002, we had to wait no fewer than eight months for our first match. We hadn’t planned it that way. And I let the organisers know that in no uncertain terms, especially as we were rebuilding the squad.
Why have Cameroon played so few games?
We are defending champions in the final rounds in the African Cup of Nations in Tunisia next year and so we don’t have to contest the preliminaries. Then we had trouble with the players’ agent so we said goodbye to him. And there are also structural problems at the association which can’t be overlooked.
Are these conditions typical of African countries?
Not in North Africa. But some problems with specialised skills do exist in black Africa. There is room for improvement in our organisational and structural abilities.
B> Why do so many Europeans go to Africa as national coaches?
Some of my predecessors from Europe have produced very good results there. And many other African countries are now emulating them. European coaches are respected all round and they demand basic discipline. Africans are proud people and they go about their work with a sense of patriotism.
Your life still revolves around Karlsruhe in Germany. Is this a drawback for your work in Cameroon?
No, not at all. I have a flat in Yaoundé, another one in Paris and in between I am in Karlsruhe. In any case, most of my internationals are playing in Europe. So I often come to Europe to take care of my players. It is very important for me to visit them at their clubs and try to help them solve their problems, which many of them have with clubs. Take Olembe, for example, who is hardly ever fielded at Olympique Marseilles. So when I talk to his coach, Perrin, Olembe doesn’t feel as though he has been left out in the cold. Or Mezague. He would be playing for France if I hadn’t flown to Montpellier immediately. If I had been in Cameroon, there would have been a real problem with travel.
How much time do you spend in Cameroon?
About a third of the time. I don’t need to spend more time there – after all my assistant coach is always there to keep an eye on things. I spend the rest of the time working in Europe.
What is the biggest problem facing Cameroon football and other African countries?
There are very few training opportunities and practically no reasonable turf pitches. This fact only serves to sharpen the brilliant technique they already have but is hardly conducive to shooting practice. This, in my opinion, is why so many Africans fail to finish off. But there are also material and structural problems. For example, there is no youth league in Cameroon that would serve to develop and nurture talent constantly.
What needs to be improved?
I don’t want to appear to be a knowall. But if organisation and conditions were improved, we would be able to win a major tournament. I have already made this point to the people who make decisions.
You only speak English but most of the players speak French. How do you communicate with the team?
It isn’t a problem. Everyone apart from Eto’o understands English. Our talks are all the more intensive because everyone is concentrating. But I hold talks about the team in German and keep them brief and to the point. I tell my assistant coach what I am going to say beforehand and he repeats it all in French. That way we avoid talking gibberish.
Cameroon will be up against tough opposition in the group round of the Confederations Cup in the shape of world champions Brazil, third-placed 2002 World Cup team Turkey, and the USA. What are your aims in the face of this line-up?
I watched the Turks recently in England. They’re a powerful side and it was no coincidence they came third at the World Cup. The Brazilians are the hotshots of international football and I love their game. The ball is always their friend. But we have a strong belief in ourselves. Despite the opposition, we want to get to the final in Paris.
Will you fear for your job in Cameroon if you don’t achieve these results?
No. But of course I know that every coach is knocked whenever the results are poor – that’s football. But I am relying on the camaraderie in the team and on their strong characters. If everything goes according to plan, Cameroon will play well at the Confederations Cup.