A haul of four points from their next two CAF Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers and unheralded Tanzania could yet make strides towards the next finals in 2012. But without at least a win and a draw in their next two matches, which will be home and away against the Central African Republic, the Taifa Stars will not be able to mount a decent bid to try and emulate their only ever previous appearance at the final of the continent’s tournament in 1980.
“If we don’t get four points against the Central African Republic, it is not realistic to talk about qualification,” warns the team’s veteran Danish coach, Jan Poulsen, in an exclusive interview. “Always when you go into these qualification campaigns, it is with ambition, but we also have to be realistic.”
The east African country of 42 million had the misfortune to be drawn in arguably one of the toughest preliminary pairings for the 2012 finals, which are being co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. It's a sentiment that Poulsen agrees with. “But you can say the two favourites in the group Algeria and Morocco have not got off to the best of starts,” he explains. “Morocco were held at home by the Central African Republic, who then beat Algeria, We also drew at Algeria. So it shows there is a potential for a lot of things to still happen in the group.”
But the up-and-coming CAR will be no pushovers, and Poulsen expects a tough weekend in Dar-es-Salaam, plus another difficult mission in Bangui in early June. “It’s not going to be easy. We know little about the Central African Republic, save for they have been a real surprise in the group.”
Poulsen is therefore concentrating on his own team’s fortunes and says he is pleased with the recent progress of the Taifa Stars. “If you look at our home record we have produced some really good results over the last year. Our defence has looked tight, but we are often too shy in front of goal.”
One challenge down, one to go
Poulsen, who is also on the panel of FIFA coaching instructors, has a three-year contract with a double objective. The first he has already achieved, helping the side to win the East and Central African Senior Challenge Cup on home soil in December. Tanzania beat Côte d’Ivoire’s A team to take the trophy in the final, having eliminated defending champions Uganda on post-match penalties in the last four.
His second objective is Nations Cup qualification. “The one target is obviously much harder than the other, but we want to give it our best and see what happens,” he says about reaching the continental finals. “It is a realistic expectation to believe we can win the regional competition, but now we have to move up a step. It is only with time and long-term planning that we can expect to qualify regularly for a Nations Cup place. We are not a bad team. We have shown we can compete. But to get one good result is not good enough. We need six to seven consistent performances in a row."
Tanzania’s development on that course is pleasing adds the coach. “We had a lot of games over the last 18 months, perhaps too many, but we’ve put together a record that is acceptable to me,” he says before going into his footballing philosophy. “I favour a fast and aggressive style. I have a well-organised defence, but I think that is the easier part of football to be able to organise. We still have to develop in other areas. The biggest problem I face is ball watching. The reading of the game needs work. My players need to anticipate situations rather than react to them, through a better reading of the game.”
But Poulsen believes he has seen much potential in the east African nation. “It’s a big country and obviously not just one man can do it. We all have to agree to move in a forward direction.” Poulsen, who turned 65 this week, is in Tanzania after assignments in Singapore, Jordan and Armenia, as well as working with the Danish national team. He was Richard Moller Nielsen’s assistant when the Danes won the 1992 European Championship. “I enjoy working in different countries," he says about his far-flung career. "It is not just about football, but a life experience. It gives you a perspective of different cultures, and I like that.”