During Paul Le Guen’s 2002-05 stint as coach for Olympique Lyon the club won three consecutive Ligue 1 championships, three Trophee des Champions and reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League two years in a row.
Spells with Glasgow Rangers and Paris Saint-Germain followed, before the 47 year-old took the helm at Cameroon and led their ultimately unsuccessful bid to qualify from the group stages of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Now Le Guen is back with a new challenge in his sights, having recently signed up with the Oman Football Association to coach the Oman national team through the AFC qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Brazil 2014. The experienced strategist and one-time defender met with FIFA.com to discuss his memories of Olympique Lyon and Cameroon, Oman and his thoughts on the future of French football.
FIFA.com: You had a lot of offers, but chose to go with Oman. Why?
Le Guen: I met with the president of the OFA in London in February and then again in April, and we clicked. I had a number of options open to me, but I took my decision then. It’s a new adventure and an opportunity for me to continue working with my friends, which is something that’s very important to me.
This will be your first time working in the Middle East. Are you at all nervous, especially given the cultural differences?
Not at all. One always takes things like cultural differences into account. The important thing is to listen to the people who are there to help me, like Mohanna Saeed. Things are not the same over there and I’ll need the assistance. At the same time, I have a good feeling, and I’ll be able to work without any distractions. I believe we can achieve something positive.
You’re famous for uncovering hidden talent like Shabani Nonda and El Hadji Diouf. Will you be able to do the same for Oman?
Of course, that’s why I’m here. Claude Le Roy did a great job for Oman in the past, but my task is to keep us moving forward. With the greatest respect to Claude, I have to find my own way of working with the support staff and making a success of my time here.
What do you hope to achieve with the Oman national side?
It’s not so much an aim or target, as a dream: we want to give everything we’ve got and qualify for the FIFA World Cup. We know that we’re not expected to make it to the finals, and that there are lots of sides better than ourselves, but I believe we have to dream: we have to try to achieve the unexpected.
Let’s talk about your time at Olympique Lyon. What’s the secret behind your huge success at the club?
Well, we had wonderful players, of course, and an excellent team spirit. The players were always exceptional on the pitch, and despite the fact that the squad was never more than 17 or 18 strong, they were a tight-knit group. Not only were the players technically impressive they were mentally strong as well. It was a fantastic time for me.
Last year you coached Cameroon at South Africa 2010. Why do you think the team made such a poor showing and lost all three group stage games?
It was odd. We were the last side to qualify for our group and so much was written and talked about our problems that to even be there was something of a miracle. We shouldn't forget that. I wasn’t happy with our performance at the FIFA World Cup, but sometimes it’s not such a bad thing to get a bit of perspective and realize we were the weakest of all the qualifying teams. The reason we failed in South Africa was the lack of unity in the side, plus I suspect I may not have chosen the best squad for the task.
Do you believe that inexperience at the very highest level is a problem facing not just Cameroon but all African sides?
As for Cameroon, I don’t think experience had anything to do with it. We lost because of a lack of unity and because the team spirit we showed during the qualifiers wasn't there in the finals. During the qualifiers we had a target: qualifying for the FIFA World Cup finals. Everybody recognized this and stayed focused. When we got to the finals this focus went missing.
What about the other African teams? Ghana in particular could have gone even further than they did.
The desire is there, but the African teams have to understand that team spirit is incredibly important. They have to think as a single unit in order to achieve their goals.
As a French coach, what are your feelings about France’s performance in South Africa?
I was very disappointed. I think the players themselves regret what happened. Sometimes, though, you just have to accept what you did and move on.
What can a coach do in such difficult circumstances?
I don’t want to start giving lessons, but we had problems in the Cameroon camp. I had personal issues with the players. It’s easy to judge from a distance and that goes for France, too. For instance, no one else knows what went on in the Cameroon camp, so I'm the only one who can pass judgement and perhaps learn from the experience.
How do you see the future of French football?
I'm optimistic. A new president of the French Football Federation has been elected, which is very important. I'm glad that Noel Le Graet got the job: I know him well and I also know he’s the best choice for the future of the game in France.
The U-20 France side has qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup for the first time since 2001. How important is this emerging talent to the game?
France has always worked on developing young talent and I believe that we are very strong at the Academy level. The fundamental problem we have is team spirit and morale. If we can all learn from the lessons of 2010 South Africa that will stand us in good stead for the years ahead.
What did you think of the tournament’s organization in South Africa?
It was a fantastic experience. Unbelievable. We might have lost three games but it was still a great adventure: it was brilliant to be playing in the FIFA World Cup. When I took over at Cameroon at the beginning of the year I never dreamed I we would be playing in the World Cup.
And finally, will we be seeing you with Oman at 2014 Brazil?
I hope so! But if I’m not there with Oman I’ll definitely be in the stands watching with the fans. I love football enough to travel at my own expense and attend the greatest footballing show on the planet!