Belgian coach Tom Saintfiet has enjoyed a lengthy love affair with Africa, one that started when he took the reins at Ivorian club Satellite Abidjan in 2000.
Despite taking up subsequent posts in Asia and Europe, the 40-year-old remained enamoured of the continent, returning for spells in charge of Namibia, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. And when a stint with Yemen ended earlier this year, Saintfiet went back to Africa once again, this time to take on the Malawi job.
Still only two months into the post, the Belgian is hoping to lead The Flames all the way to Brazil. If he is to achieve that goal, however, they must win Saturday’s make-or-break Group F qualifier away to Nigeria, a country where he has also worked.
Ahead of the vital showdown, FIFA.com spoke to the experienced Saintfiet about his side’s qualification chances, the standard of football in his adopted continent and his fascinating career.
FIFA.com: You’ve only been in the Malawi job for two months and here you are facing a crucial qualifier against Nigeria. Do you feel confident?
Tom Saintfiet: We all know that the Super Eagles are the big favourites for this game. Nigeria has a very good league championship and many star players who are with some of Europe’s big clubs. Malawi has no option but to win this match to keep its dream alive. Nigeria are two points ahead of us so mathematically we can still do it. And then, of course, anything can happen in a match. We respect Nigeria, but personally speaking and while trying to keep my feet on the ground, I think my players can go there and spring a surprise. That was the goal I wanted to achieve when I took on the Malawi job.
How do you rate Malawi’s chances of reaching the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™?
We are 270 minutes away from Brazil and we’ve got all the cards in our hands. It all hinges on us winning in Nigeria on Saturday. Then in the third round anything can happen, as it’s a straight two-legged knockout tie. It won’t be easy but it’s possible. In the past we’ve seen teams like Senegal and Togo achieve big things in the qualifiers. We’ve got a 50 per cent chance of going through and we’ll be giving it our very best shot.
Tell us about Malawi. As someone who knows African football very well, what is it that sets The Flames apart from other teams on the continent?
I’ve got an excellent squad that gets on very well together. There aren’t any professional Malawian players in Europe, but we do have seven in South Africa and three in Mozambique. The others all play in the domestic league. My boys are very motivated and they all have a dream they want to fulfil. David beat Goliath, so anything’s possible in modern football. We have the support of the fans and the national and state authorities behind us, and we just need to keep our discipline and stick together to make this miracle a reality.
You have a special relationship with Africa. When did you get the bug?
When I started out as a coach my aim and ambition was to work in Africa as a national team coach. That was back in 2000 and my dream since then has been to take an African team to the World Cup finals. I had a fantastic time in my first job with Namibia and then things went really well with Ethiopia too. I received several offers from European and Asian clubs, but I’ve never stopped dreaming about Africa. My wife is Zimbabwean, so I’m half African too.
Do you think an African country will ever win the FIFA World Cup?
It’s possible, but for that to happen, the country’s clubs and national team would have to be impeccably organised both on and off the pitch. They’d have to, among other things, have a national coach living there so that he could learn about the culture and characteristics of the country, and work closely with local footballers and clubs, because unearthing and bringing through young players, as well as tactics and discipline, are key factors in the development and success of national teams and of clubs.
Would you say that coaching a side such as Ethiopia, Namibia, Zimbabwe or Malawi is a very different kind of job than guiding a more established nation like Cameroon or Côte d’Ivoire?
Cameroon and Côte d’ivoire both have excellent players who turn out for big-name European clubs. There are also an increasing number of professional clubs within those countries. It’s not an easy thing to construct, but with a bit of drive, competence and professionalism, they’ll get there. They know that they’ve got enormous untapped potential. Other countries have this too, but they’ve been slow to become fully aware of it. You need to work on their psychology and change their mentality. When I arrived in Ethiopia in 2011, they told me I was crazy and that Ethiopia wasn’t a football nation. I just kept saying that the country would qualify for the 2013 Cup of Nations and the 2014 World Cup. They laughed in my face, but just look at where Ethiopia are today.
In your opinion, is there still a large gap between African and European football?
Yes, the gap is still there. The big difference is in the way players are developed. In Europe, children – boys and girls together – play the game from the age of 5-7 within a sporting entity or club, with a trained, qualified coach and a good infrastructure. That’s not the case in Africa. However, I’m convinced that African footballers possess greater intrinsic qualities than European footballers. Young Africans are physically stronger and better technically, but painfully lack the basic discipline and tactical know-how that can make all the difference during a match. When the day comes that Africa has the best infrastructure and improves the way it develops its young athletes, it will become the strongest football continent in the world.
Do you have a coaching role model?
Without wanting to sound big-headed, my role model is me! It’s our duty to set an example to our players and to others. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink – I lead an extremely healthy life. I’m very professional and I love my job; I really do think that I’m a role model as a coach.
Despite the distance, have you remained a firm fan of the Belgian national team?
I’m Belgian and will therefore always be a lifelong supporter of Belgium, but my favourite team is Malawi!