Cameroon appointed Volker Finke as their national team coach in May of this year. Surprisingly, it was the first African coaching position for the German, who has long been considered an expert on the continent's football. FIFA.com spoke to Finke about his experiences and his expectations for the forthcoming FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers, which see the Indomitable Lions just two matches away from qualifying for Brazil 2014.
Long before it became fashionable to sign African players in the Bundesliga, Finke proved to have a great knowledge of players from the continent and included them in his squads at SC Freiburg, where he spent a remarkable 16 seasons. "I have been to every African Nations Cup I think since 1992, even when I had Bundesliga commitments,” he said when asked about his affinity for Africa despite never having coached outside of Germany except for two seasons in Japan with Urawa Red Diamonds. "It is not really only about having coached somewhere, it is also about how much one has been in Africa, how much one has gotten to know the mentality of African players,"
Part of this has been his willingness to go above and beyond what a club coach would consider his duties, meaning he has traveled to Africa with players and learned about their backgrounds. "I have often been in Africa and have spoken with officials, with players and have been to the academies. I helped my former players Wilfried Sanou and Jonathan Pitroipa establish their own academy called Kada School in Ougadougou after Planete Champion International, where they started their careers, closed its doors.
"I have been in many different countries with players of different mentalities. In North Africa the mentality is completely different from that in west or central Africa and because of all of my experiences, I think I can say that I know Africa."
Finke, whose lengthy contract with Cameroon is not tied to any specific goal such as qualifying for Brazil, or the Nations Cup, spends a large part of his time in Cameroon. "Of course I have to have a base in Europe as most of the players in the national team are playing there, but I certainly work out of Cameroon, and my idea is to spend at least 50-plus-one per cent of my time there."
A vital turning point
With the Indomitable Lions, Finke has taken over a team with a proven track record but with little recent success. Continental champions in 2000 and 2002, they were ever-present at the World Cup finals between 1990 and 2002. Since then, however, the Lions have ceased their fearless roar and after finishing last in their group at the 2010 World Cup finals without a point, the side failed to qualify for the 2012 and 2013 AFCONs. After that Finke was roped in to turn things around, taking over from the caretaker coach Jean-Paul Akono.
Despite a slow start to his time with Cameroon, Finke believes that the turning point in their qualifying campaign came in the middle of June in a scoreless draw. "It was important that we were in a position to control our own destiny, and for that we had to get at least a point in Kinshasa against the Democratic Republic of Congo. The draw we achieved there opened the door for us and we knew that a win against Libya in our final game would be enough,” he said. “In Kinshasa, our position was clear: losing is not allowed, and I am pleased with the way the team managed to handle such pressure."
A 1-0 victory in Yaounde against Libya with Aurelien Chedjou scoring the winner saw the Lione top their group and advance to the play-offs, where they will face Tunisia in a two-legged tie (13 October and 17 November), with the winner advancing to Brazil.
Although the Carthage Eagles only made it to the final round after their 2-0 defeat against Cape Verde in their last group match was overturned due to a suspended player, Finke expects a tough game. "Tunisia's defeat against Cape Verde does not mean that they can be underestimated. Traditionally they have had very, very good players. They are vulnerable in certain circumstances when things do not go their own way, but if you allow them feelings of success, if you let them play, they are a very, very good team."
Cameroon's recent footballing history has been plagued by internal strife, much of it revolving around superstar Samuel Eto'o, whom the federation issued with a lengthy ban. The Chelsea striker played against Libya, but his future in the team remains uncertain as he has indicated that he is keen to concentrate on club football.
It is one of the issues that Finke approaches cautiously. "The most important thing is that such issues are not discussed publicly. Constant discussion just aggravates the situation, which can best be solved if the parties deal with it behind closed doors," he explained. "If you want to make things better, it is always the case that those involved talk about things between themselves only."
Whether the attacking icon remains in the fold, Finke hopes to have enough talent to get past Tunisia and help the Lions return to their previous days of glory.