Uli Stielike, one of a select band of Germans to have pulled
on a Real Madrid jersey, also rates as an authoritative figure in
the German game after assembling a wealth of experience and success
both as a player and as a coach.
The 53-year-old collected a UEFA European Championship winners' medal in 1980 and was a FIFA World Cup™ runner-up two years later. He joined the German Football Association (DFB) as a youth coach in the year 2000, supervising a clutch of today's stars from the junior ranks to the highest levels of the game. In September last year, Stielike took on a fresh challenge as successor to French supremo Henri Michel at the Côte d'Ivoire helm, seeking to maintain the Elephants' progress after their thrilling but ultimately fruitless campaign at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™.
Two months prior to the CAF Africa Cup of Nations Ghana 2008 and three years in advance of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Stielike exclusively spoke to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Uli Stielike, after more than a year in charge of Côte d'Ivoire, you must now be in a position to assess whether your original reasons for taking the job - the challenge of supervising a team in development - were realistic, and whether you're enjoying your work?
Uli Stielike: Make no mistake, I'm thoroughly enjoying the job. But let me make something else quite clear: there's not a lot of development work to be done with this national team, who've been together ever since the 2006 World Cup in Germany. It's a case of building on the successes of the past. Expectations are running high in Côte d'Ivoire.
Can you go into a little more detail? What's the state of play right now, and what needs to be improved?
There's no question about the quality in the team. Now we have to prove we have the character and the desire.
What are your targets for the three years until the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™?
Well, our first challenge is the 2008 African championships in Ghana. That's where we'll initially focus our efforts. We were runners-up last time, and we've continued to come on since then, so there's not a lot of room for improvement in that respect. Doing much better than that is a big ask, but thinking ahead to the World Cup in three years, we have plenty of scope. After all, we were eliminated at the group stage in Germany, although you could certainly say we gave a good account of ourselves.
A few weeks ago, your fellow countryman and current Nigeria boss Berti Vogts exclusively told FIFA.com he believed two African teams could make it to the semi-finals at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Would you agree?
[Pauses for thought] Yes, I'd put my neck on the block to exactly the same extent as Vogts in this respect.
What about you personally? Are you motivated by the idea of leading a nation such as Côte d'Ivoire to the FIFA World Cup in South Africa?
Let's get Ghana 2008 out of the way first. Obviously, it'll be fundamentally more difficult for me to lead the team to a better result there than they achieved at the previous tournament, certainly by comparison with the World Cup. I'm contracted until February, and then we'll see what happens. But obviously I can imagine continuing my work with Côte d'Ivoire. Coaching an African team is exceptionally interesting.
On the basis of your experience so far, how significant is the first FIFA World Cup on African soil for the continent as a whole?
It's immensely valuable, especially for South Africa, but also for the rest of the continent too. Just thinking about the infrastructure improvements they'll carry out, you're talking about a full-blown development project from which everyone benefits.
Most of your squad play their club football in Europe. Is that an advantage for you?
It is an advantage because I can watch them more frequently. It's not wrong to say that my 25 best players earn their money in Europe. We often contest friendlies in Europe too, which is another bonus.
Your star player, Didier Drogba of Chelsea, is a consistent top performer season after season. Is he capable of leading your team to even greater success?
If he plays to his potential, he's unquestionably the best penalty box player in the world for me. There's also no doubting he has the character to lead the team. But let me make one thing very clear: even Drogba would fail without the team. It's not only about Drogba. It would be a mistake to imagine everything stood or fell by him.