When Philippe Troussier was appointed South Africa coach in 1998, one of the first things he did was visit the former wife of South African anti-Apartheid icon Nelson Mandela. During his visit, a goat was slaughtered and Troussier bathed his feet and hands in its blood, before partaking in a feast that consisted of home-brewed beer, the meat of the goat and pap (a South African porridge).
He was then given an 'isiphandla', which is a bracelet made of the skin of the dead goat. Paris-born Troussier participated in the three-hour ceremony to appease the ancestors and bring glory to Bafana Bafana. It was this understanding and acceptance of African traditions and customs that earned Troussier, who converted to Islam during a stay in north Africa and took on the name Omar, the nickname of the 'White Witch Doctor' in African football circles.
Troussier is also a widely travelled manager on the continent – he has coached five national teams as well an array of clubs – so it was hardly surprising when CS Sfaxien of Tunisia came calling in their quest for a new coach to take them to CAF Champions League glory. Although he was being linked with a number of coaching jobs, the Frenchman signed for Sfaxien, marking a return to Africa. “Even when I left in 2005 to return to Asia [in Japan and China PR], I always kept close ties with the continent," he told FIFA.com. My home is in Rabat, Morocco. I still have many friends in many countries, where I go regularly. I always had a strong relationship with the continent, and I feel I have never really left.”
It is fair to say Troussier's return to African football has been blessed in the early going as back-to-back victories in the CAF Champions League saw his club into the semi-finals with a game to spare – and at the expense of domestic rivals Esperance no less. “It is very satisfying to have achieved this qualification. We know that we will play a club from the Democratic Republic of the Congo [TP Mazembe or AS Vita Club] in the next round. That allows us to prepare for the trip well in advance, organising things like visas, vaccinations and travel arrangements. We also have an advantage as I have eight players under threat of suspension and that will allow me to look at how we play in the last group game.”
Troussier, who enjoyed a low-key playing career as a defender with a number of clubs in France, including Red Star 93 and Reims, said he was surprised at how fast the team had adapted to the new coaching set-up. “The players had lost in the Tunisian Cup final against Etoile du Sahel and were then given a few days break, but when they came back they adapted really well to my training. This showed me that they are taking their profession very seriously. I demand a lot from the players as I signed with the club to get results.”
He says that even though he was not given any specific targets he has to reach, he understands his task. “When you sign for a club like Sfaxien, which has been amongst the best in Tunisia and Africa for several years, leaders do not need to specify they want to win titles!”
Ready for a Champions League title?
Sfaxien have never won the showpiece of African continental club football, but they were beaten finalists in 2006. They do hold the record for most win's in CAF's second club competition, the Confederation Cup, having won their third title last year. Troussier is confident the team, which is nicknamed the Juventus of the Arabs, will mount a serious challenge in the Champions League this season. “I consider Sfax as a favourite to win, but the other three semi-finalists are also very strong. It is the same in the [restarting] Tunisian league: we are a candidate to win the league title.”
Troussier is considered an astute tactician, and sure enough he used two different formations in the Champions League's two matches. “We played with four defenders against Esperance and three against Al-Ahly. When I pick the side, I look at the qualities and weaknesses of our opponents. I have been very happy with our defence, but I think we can do better in the opponents' half. We won both matches 1-0. We must make better use of some offensive situations, make better choices to create more scoring chances.”