Far from Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the charms of the Persian Gulf, the windy, sand-swept motorway to Al Ain whisks the intrepid traveller way off the beaten track; this is the southeastern corner of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and only the hardy palm trees dare resist the unforgiving sun here. We have made the journey through the desert to talk with “Mitsou”, the erstwhile sorcerer of Senegal who received the 2002 Best Coach of the Year award from the African Football Confederation (CAF) on 1 April.
But Metsu is not one to pine for past glories; he has discovered another wonderful world in Al Ain, one he unhesitatingly describes as “just as fascinating as Africa”. On the training ground, he has been working hard to impose his methods and help his new club, with its uniquely loyal following, move forward. It has not always been easy - his insistence on “unthinkable” training sessions in the morning, for example, met with stubborn resistance at first – but Metsu typically stuck to his guns!
Such is the aura surrounding the Frenchman following his Senegal side’s unforgettable campaign in the Far East that he soon won over players and club officials alike. Metsu is not the only successful Korea/Japan 2002 coach to have made the long trek east; Senol Gunes and Guus Hiddink have all managed lesser-known Asian outfits before him. “To take part in a World Cup is as good as it gets. You feel like you’re on top of the world. All the more so because with each passing game we noticed that the whole world had fallen in love with Senegal and our style of play. Add to that the fact that it was Senegal’s first finals and with a team of kids at that.”
Al Ain won the Emirates league, have qualified for the semi-finals of the UAE Cup, and are currently in fantastic form in the Asian Champions League, with a 4-2 home win in the first leg of their semi-final against China’s Dalian (second leg: 23 April). Metsu’s charges even managed to beat Juventus in a recent friendly, surprising the visiting Italians with their discipline, team spirit and unselfish running – three qualities their coach has been drilling into them from the start.
“Football’s a team game. The team must always come first. That is what’s so great about this sport. For me, Salif Diao’s goal against Denmark in the World Cup was the highlight of the competition. I never get tired of seeing replays of that goal…Personally, that’s why I love my job. Watching that move and that goal from the bench was an absolute treat.”