In Africa, the likes of Claude Leroy, Henri Michel and Robert Nouzaret have become household names in recent years. These and other trailblazing French coaches have touched down in many a far-flung football outpost across the continent, bringing joy to their temporary hosts with numerous successes. Eddie Hudanski may have a much lower profile, but what he has achieved inCongois quite simply out of the ordinary. We turn the spotlight on this little-known technician.
"There was literally nothing: no team and no infrastructure, so we've had to put everything together ourselves." This is how the man himself describes the situation that existed when he was made coach of the Congolese U-20 side in 2005. The background to his appointment was remarkable in its own right: Congo had just learnt that it would be hosting the CAN Juniors 2007, but the country did not even have a youth team yet. A bit of a stumbling block, you might think, but the President of the Republic merely called up his friend Gerard Bourgoin, Chairman of AJ Auxerre, to ask for his aid. The latter got in touch with Eddie Hudanski, who promptly accepted this slightly insane challenge.
"Our first task was some intensive talent-spotting. Five of us scouts from Auxerre crisscrossed the whole of Congo, watching local tournaments, impromptu games, and even kids having kickabouts in the streets. We ran the rule over about 800 kids and eventually picked out fifty of them." At the same time, a football infrastructure emerged, courtesy of the speedy creation of a training centre, restaurant and games room beneath the stands of the national stadium.
Time was of the essence, as a team was required for the CAN set to take place in January 2007. "The initial target set for me by the federation was simply not to be ridiculed. So we've over-achieved by a long chalk," says Hudanski with evident glee. Indeed they have, as a year and a half on from taking up the gauntlet, the Red Devils are champions of Africa.
A man who loves to nurture talent, he is proud of his success and quite rightly so. In successive spells in charge of youth training at Laval (a French club renowned for its academy system), as general manager at Limoges, in command of the French army team, as national technical director in China, managing FC Sion, and then as founder of an academy (Kadji Sports) in Cameroon, he has constantly sought to train, create, construct and innovate.
A titanic task
"It's been a massive undertaking, very taxing at every level. I've even worked 20-hour days sometimes, but I don't think there's anything half as satisfying as this type of experience. We started out with nothing and in two and a half years, we're in the Round of 16 of the U-20 World Cup. You have to bear in mind that eight years ago, the country was still in the grip of war and that it's still very poor now. If these lads manage to make a career for themselves in the game, it literally means they'll be able to keep their families alive. If I can help them do that, then I'm happy," he explains.
So far, four of the players have been recruited by Auxerre. So could Hudanski be accused of having a hidden agenda? "The sole advantage for AJ Auxerre is that we can spot the best players before the other clubs, as we're here on the ground. But for the moment, the chief winners are the Congolese federation, which now has a youth team, an infrastructure and probably a decent senior side in a few years time."
Indeed, coach Hudanski is effusive in his praise of the players, particularly Delvin Ndinga, an explosive midfielder. "I remember discovering him playing on the beach at Pointe-Noire. He had that certain grace that all great players have, an easy way of carrying himself, not to mention a fierce passion for the game. Most players have to learn their trade, but he's a real natural and I think he could go far. He reminds me of Samuel Eto'o, in fact..."
So Hudanski's prospecting has unearthed at least one golden nugget, but he is adamant that he has tapped into a rich vein of talent capable of prevailing over Mexico. "We're the underdogs and that suits us just fine. Mexico's style of play is more similar to our own than that of Canada or Austria, for example. We both like to play football, and I often say that my ideal would be for the ball not to leave the ground for 90 minutes." But above all a realist, the French schemer knows that the Tricolores have undeniable quality. "The spine of their side is unbelievably strong. Patricio Araujo is a really dogged defender; Efrain Juarez is an exceptional ball-winner and creative talent, while Giovanni Dos Santos is a clinical and stylish performer. We're going to have to be at our very best in defence."
True enough, but what about tactics? "It's quite simple: we're going to mark them tightly, man for man, as well as picking up in a zone." In the heat of battle, even the best laid plans can all too easily go astray, but Hudanski does not balk at bullishness. "We can beat them and we have to believe that. We competed well with Chile, before cracking after going down to 10 men. I watched the Mexicans carefully in their first two games and I know it's possible, but we'll need to be really up for it, rather than standing around watching them play.
Which leads us to perhaps the coach's greatest cause for concern: that his charges might suffer a collective bout of stage fright. "Yes, they'll no doubt be a bit tense as it's a massive day for them. Hey, they're actually taking photos of the stadiums, as coming from the kind of poverty they do, these kind of facilities are a real luxury for them. I don't have the heart to be a killjoy, as I've been strict with them for the last 2 ½ years and they deserve to enjoy every moment." On a personal level, what does he plan to do after this adventure? "I'm not really sure… I'll probably go and start building somewhere else..."