Since twice finishing as a FIFA World Cup™ runner-up as a player, in 1974 and 1978, Dutch legend Arie Haan has amassed more than 20 years experience as a coach. Now, though, the 57-year-old faces the biggest challenge of his career after signing a two-year contract last month to coach Cameroon.
Haan began his tenure in very promising fashion with a 3-0 win in Rwanda, a result that will give the Dutch legend some room to manoeuvre as he begins the considerable task of getting the Indomitable Lions back on track in time for the 2008 CAF African Cup of Nations.
In an exclusive interview here with FIFA.com, Haan talks about the challenges of African football, his team's potential and their main opponents in the CAF.
Mr Haan, you have got off to a successful start as Cameroon coach with a 3-0 win over Rwanda. What are your first impressions of your new team?
Overall, it was a very positive experience. They're a well organised team and we looked pretty good out there. I don't really know many of the players, and not all of them are mainstays in their respective teams, so it's difficult to come to any conclusions at this early stage. All I can really comment on is the one-week training camp we had in Nairobi, which went very well, and was a chance for me to get to know the players.
You gave midfielder Landry Nguemo his first cap…
He's a good young player, who plies his trade at Nancy and he even managed to mark his full international debut with a goal. He made a really good impression on me at the short training camp we had, so I decided to throw him in at the deep end. It's no secret that I like young players who've got some class and who know how to play. I'm always the first to give youngsters like him a chance.
Things have not gone too well for Cameroon over the past few years. They missed out on qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ and were knocked out of the 2004 African Cup of Nations at the quarter-final stage. What had been going wrong?
It's tough for me to say, but I do have an idea as to why this happened. This is an ageing team that's been together for a while. Any group that has played together for a certain length of time is always going to lack something in terms of sharpness, even though the players are still giving their all. Cameroon have a good squad, but they might be a little past their prime. With the addition of one or two young players, this team could still scale the heights. It would give the established players back their edge, since no-one would want to lose their places to the youngsters.
How did you come into contact with Cameroon?
I have a friend who spends a lot of time in the country. He knew they were looking for a coach, and once the federation got a copy of my CV, everything moved really quickly. Within a week, it had all been sorted out, which was certainly fast work.
Is it an honour for you to be coaching a team which is loved by fans around the world?
It certainly is one of the reasons why we came here. Cameroon have a great reputation, and also the potential to win competitions.
You have only signed a relatively short contract…
You have to think in professional terms, though, and I think two years is a good period of time. We can all get to know each other, see what we're capable of and how we can go about it. First of all, though, you have to see whether we're a good mutual fit.
What are your early impressions of Africa, and particularly of Cameroon?
I came here without any preconceived ideas and I haven't been particularly surprised. I'm just letting it all sink in at the moment, since I don't really know Africa at all. When it comes to getting used to new perspectives on life, though, it does help that I've travelled all around the world. It is different here from in Europe, but I think that we Dutch have a particular ability to get to grips with things and to take things as we find them. Cameroon is a developing nation, and you have to take that into account when you take on a job like this one. If you do that, you won't have a problem.
Do you have to deal with African players differently from their counterparts in Europe or Asia?
Football is basically the same the world over, and so are the players. There are of course differences, but you get this in Europe as well. I would treat a Belgian player differently from a Dutch one, even though we are talking about two neighbouring lands. Countries each have their own mentalities - some players need more encouragement while others need the opposite, and things are no different in Cameroon.
Where national coaches live has become a hot topic in recent years. Are you going to set up home in Cameroon?
Yes, we're already looking for somewhere to live. I'm going to spend a lot of my time in the country, but I'll also be travelling a lot, since most of our players are based in Europe, and you have to be over there to keep in contact with the clubs and the guys themselves.
Will keeping tabs on all the potential players be your biggest challenge?
There are lots of talented players in Cameroon, and even the federation can't keep tabs on all of them. There are hundreds of youngsters who left the country at an early age and who are playing all around the world now. What we will be doing is trying to get local coaches involved in youth work to keep good young players at home.
Is winning the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations the condition for you to stay on as coach for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™?
You can't make long-term statements like that. Things might change within the federation or on a political level. People do expect us to get through to the last four of the African Nations Cup at the very least. We obviously want to go there and win it, but first we have to see what happens between now and then, since there are a number of teams who are really going places in Africa at the moment.
Give us some examples of the teams we should be keeping an eye on...
Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana - most of the top teams come from West and North Africa rather than the South and the East. South Africa aren't among the best at the moment, but I expect them to be there or thereabouts in two years time, particularly since the World Cup will get people interested again.
It was predicted back in the 1990s that African teams would soon be good enough to win the FIFA World Cup. Is this already the case?
If everything went their way, then yes, this could happen. We need to keep on working hard in terms of tactics, though. All the players are technically sound, but there is still a lot to do regarding teamwork. Each country has its stars - we've got Samuel Eto'o, who has already scored three times this season for Barcelona and is on top form. There's also Rigobert Song at Galatasaray, and Geremi, who's having a tough time of it as he's in a team full of superstars at Chelsea. We need to find other good players who can complement them, and if we can manage that, then yes, an African team could win the World Cup. Some countries are getting close already…