Few coaches have a resume as colourful and diverse as newly appointed Singapore coach Bernd Stange. Following a lengthy playing and coaching career in the former East Germany, Stange has, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, plied his trade in nations as diverse as Ukraine, Australia, Oman, Iraq, Cyprus and Belarus.
Singapore have enjoyed a fruitful period of growth under the long-serving Radojko Avramovic who successfully guided a struggling side into a formidable force, at least in regional terms, with the Serbian helping the Lions become south-east Asian champions three times over the past decade. Now the much-travelled Stange is intent on taking the city-state located off the southern tip of Malaysia to fresh heights.
Although now 65, the effusive Stange is brimming with enthusiasm saying he could not be more content with his new lot in life. “Singapore is exciting,” Stange tells FIFA.com in reference to both the place and his role guiding the nation’s football ambitions. “The people are kind and it is one of the best places I have been in my life. I enjoy every single day that I go to work. You can only achieve something in your life if you enjoy what you are doing.”
Stange learned his craft in his native East Germany where he says “football was not a priority,” and guided the national team over a six-year period, including successful qualification for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. However, the Communist nation boycotted the event, and Stange was to miss out again 20 years later when the political situation in Iraq forced him to step down from his coaching role with the Lions of Mesopotamia. Stange enjoyed two prosperous years working with Iraq, and many of the players that featured in the team’s strong showings at the 2004 Olympic Football Tournament, ultimately helped the war-torn nation defy the odds to achieve a remarkable AFC Asian Cup victory three years later.
Most recently Stange enjoyed four successful years with Belarus, lifting the Eastern European nation to a record high on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking claiming several famous scalps along the way, most notably a victory over France in Paris.
Stange believes his track record and previous experience make him well suited to the role with the ambitious Singapore. “The challenge is not so different to others in my life,” said Stange. “It is a young federation and is in a similar position to Belarus, a country in which we were able to achieve sensational results and also qualify for the Olympics.
“Youngsters make so many mistakes in their life, and so it is in football,” says Stange, using a characteristic metaphor. “Singapore is a young country [in football terms] and this is a challenge I have experienced before.”
So does Stange relish the opportunity to mould a team in his own image? “Yes, and you can make bigger steps than with a team higher up the ranking,” says Stange. “The FAS [Football Association of Singapore] have a long-term strategy plan for development, and also education of football coaches which I like, and which helped convince me to make the move to Singapore. I like this challenge and believe I am the right man for this situation. Every single day I am convinced we are moving in the right direction.”
Shiny new era
Singapore are set to open a 55,000 state-of-the-art stadium next year and filling the new venue is one of Stange’s ambitions. “We have to find a way to fill this modern arena,” he said. “It is a new challenge for Singapore football. We want it to be full of life and enthusiasm. My dream is that people will be sleeping in front of the ticket counter for a ticket.”
Despite their regional triumphs over recent years, Singapore has found success at continental level much harder to find. Currently they are battling Jordan, Oman and Syria for two qualification berths to the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia. Their campaign to end a three-decade absence from the tournament began with a 4-0 defeat in Jordan prior to Stange’s arrival earlier this year.
Outsiders they may be, but Stange harbours ambitions of taking Singapore to Australia 2015 “If you don’t believe, then we may as well call AFC and withdraw from the competition,” says Stange mixing his trademark sense of humour with a perennially optimistic outlook. “Until the very last moment we will believe in our chances. We want to qualify for the next Asian Cup.”
And is there a secret to Stange's history of success? “The best slogan I have had in football, no matter what the country, is one word: ‘respect’,” volunteers the idiosyncratic Stange. “This is not just for sport but for everyone around the world, including politicians. If you follow this word, you will definitely succeed.”