During the course of his career on the bench, German coach Bernd Stange has traveled to many corners of the globe, plying his trade in Oceania and Asia before returning to Europe in 2007 to take on the Belarus job.
The journey has been a fruitful one so far. Under the former Iraq coach the eastern Europeans have improved their position in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and currently stand second in Group D of the qualifying competition for UEFA EURO 2012, leaving them handily placed to reach the finals of a major tournament for the first time.
FIFA.com tracked down the 63-year-old tactician for an exclusive interview and spoke to him about Belarus’ qualification hopes, his increasingly productive tenure there, the cultural differences he has faced around the world and the future of German football.
FIFA.com: Mr Stange, Belarus are doing well in the UEFA EURO 2012 qualifiers. How do you feel things are going?
Bernd Stange: I’m happy to be coaching the team and I’m proud to have taken them from 90th in the World Ranking to 37th. Belarus aren’t so very far away from Russia and Ukraine now, which is an excellent achievement for what is a very young team. I’m also pleased to be inspiring local coaches, who are looking at how the national team plays. I’m going to do all I can to take this side to the European Championship. It’s a dream of ours.
You have coached several clubs and national teams too. What’s the difference between coaching one and the other?
When you’re in charge of a national side you only have a limited amount of time in which to work with the players, which makes it hard to identify your best XI. It’s tough because as well as coaching 25 players, you’ve also got to take a leading role with the national association and plot the course the team should take.
Do you think you made the right decision in leaving German football to coach around the world?
I coached two Bundesliga sides in Hertha Berlin and Leipzig but I didn’t hit any of my objectives with either of them, and I knew that I wouldn’t be getting any more chances in Germany. You know, I think I’m the only East German coach who has stayed in the profession. A lot of my former colleagues have gone off and done different things, but I’m happy to still be involved in football. Thanks to football I’ve been able to pursue my career in different countries.
Can you realistically see yourself going back to Germany at some point in the future?
I don’t think that’s realistic, to be honest. To start with I’m over 60, and clubs are looking for young coaches. Then there’s the fact that when you’ve been away from Germany for a long time, people feel you know less and less about the game. All I can say is that it’s always good to come up with fresh ideas.
Have you had any difficulties with the different styles of play you’ve come across on your travels?
German football is still the template as far as I’m concerned, but when you go to a different country you have to adapt to their style. In Russia, for example, you’ll find a lot of fast players who play good football, whereas in Australia they play a more committed and physical, English-type game, and in the Middle East the focus is more on technical skills and less on the physical side of things. Wherever I’ve been, though, whether it’s East Germany, West Germany, Australia or Iraq, I’ve always had the same objective in mind: to get the ball in the back of the net.
Do you think there’s a link between different cultures and different styles of play?
To me culture and football are one and the same and you have to respect all the different ways of playing the game. You can’t change the culture of a country, and if you try to do that then you’re doomed to failure. What you can do is change a few things here and there if you get the players and the coaches on your side. I’ve given a lot of talks in Belarus with a view to developing their style, and if you can get 60 or 70 per cent of clubs to develop the football they play, then you can get people interested in what you’re doing.
What phase of your coaching career has had the biggest impact on you?
My time in charge of East Germany is still close to my heart, when we had players of the calibre of Matthias Sammer and Ulf Kirsten in the team. Times were tough and playing football was no easy thing. I also enjoyed the time I spent in Australia with Perth Glory, who I managed to take back to the top in only a couple of years. And in Cyprus I helped steer Apollon Limassol away from relegation and on to the title the following season without losing a single game.
How do you think German football has come on in recent years?
Germany are on the way to regaining their status after a period of decline, and that’s mostly down to the fact they’ve focused on young players and invested a lot of money in them. No other country puts as much effort into looking after their younger generations of players. They’ve got a lot of talent in the 18-21 age group and I’m sure Germany will achieve some big things in the years to come, mainly thanks to Sammer, who has made a lot of changes, especially in the youth categories. It’s great to see players like [Sami] Khedira and [Mesut] Ozil playing at Real Madrid. There’s also Mario Gotze at Borussia Dortmund, who have got a lot of gifted youngsters who can take Germany to the top in the near future.
A lot’s been said about the progress Spanish football has made. What’s your view on that?
If you ask me, Vicente Del Bosque was the number one coach last year. He’s got Spain playing a nice brand of football that’s gone down well with everyone. We all want to play like La Roja and Barcelona. They play a cultured game and make between 600 and 700 passes a match, all with one touch too. It’s a joy to watch them play.
What do you think of the decision to award the 2022 FIFA World Cup™ to Qatar?
Well, the World Cup has been held in Africa for the first time, and that’s something FIFA initially received a lot of criticism for. I’ve been in South Africa and personally I was a little worried by what was being said about security and other things. But it was a fantastic World Cup in the end and very exciting too. Now we’re seeing the same mistakes being made again. What the critics should do is go to Qatar. I’m sure they’re capable of staging one of the great World Cups, and they’re leading the way in so many areas, like training grounds, stadiums and medical equipment, in short all the things football needs, not to mention a global projection in terms of coverage and broadcasting. My only concern would be with getting fans into the stadiums, though I’m sure they’ll find a way of filling them up. The organisers have got 11 years to think about that and to put together a magnificent World Cup.