As Iraq embark on their campaign to qualify for the finals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, their hopes rest largely on the vast experience of German coach Wolfgang Sidka, who has led the Lions of Mesopotamia in three tournaments since taking the reins in August 2010.
Under Sidka, Iraq have got off to a slow start. Innocuous showings at the WAFF Championship and the Gulf Cup last year were followed by failure to defend the team’s AFC Asian Cup title in early 2011, but as the 57-year-old former midfielder knows only too well, the real challenge begins with Iraq’s preliminary round FIFA World Cup qualifier against Yemen.
FIFA.com spoke to the man who has previously coached Bundesliga outfit Werder Bremen and the Bahrain national team about the upcoming match against Yemen and his time in Iraq, as well as his views on the current state of German football.
FIFA.com: What are your thoughts ahead of your Brazil 2014 qualifier against Yemen?
Wolfgang Sidka: Yemen will be a tough nut to crack. They played excellent football at the Gulf Cup last year, and they’ve been preparing by playing and training abroad. Despite the country’s current unrest, I expect them to put on a good performance.
How have you prepared Iraq for this game?
We’ve stepped up the fitness and teamwork training by taking part in a four-way tournament in Jordan. Our goal is to be 100 per cent ready on the day. We want to get past this first challenge and move on to the next round of qualifiers.
There are a lot of Iraqi players plying their trade overseas at the moment. Does this pose any problems for you as coach? How do you get the squad to gel as a unit?
What we tried to do is give a chance to local players first and foremost. When I took over there were a lot of fine players who didn’t belong to any club, like Hawar Mulla Mohammed, Nashat Akram and Samer Saeed. Things are much better now: most of these guys play club football and others have started coming through the ranks. It’s taken time, but now I feel I know the players and so everything is a lot easier.
Going from Germany to Iraq, what differences in culture and outlook have you noticed? And do you miss Germany?
When I arrived to take up my position as Iraq coach, the first thing I noticed was the heat! Professional football started in Germany back in 1963, while over here professionalism in the game is a relatively recent phenomenon. Another major difference is the infrastructure. There’s a huge gulf between the two countries. But I enjoy my work here. I’ve travelled to lots of countries with the national team, for training camps and tournaments. As for Germany, well of course I miss it, even though I spent some time unemployed there.
Do you intend to go back to the Bundesliga at some point?
I’m quite content with my current job with the Iraq team. Right now I’m trying to give all my attention to the squad, and when my contract with the Iraq Football Federation is up, then we’ll see about the future.
In 1998 you won the UEFA Intertoto Cup with Werder Bremen. What are your memories of that time?
After a period of great success under Otto Rehhagel the team went through a time of rebuilding. I was the first manager to win a European tournament with the side after Rehhagel’s retirement, and it was a wonderful time of my life.
On the subject of rebuilding, you laid the foundations of success for both the Bahrain national team and Al Gharafa. How did you go about it?
It was great - it’s what I love about this job. At the start of a new contract, I never know any of the players, but that gradually changes. It’s very important to me to communicate better with my team. Building a team doesn’t happen in a month or two. It takes a couple of years at least, so I take great satisfaction at the current performances of Bahrain and Al Gharafa.
What do you think of Germany’s performance at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa?
Aside from Brazil, perhaps, any country in the world would be proud to have a team like Germany’s. We’ve won the World Cup more than once and we nearly always finish in the top four. At the last World Cup we came up against a Spanish side that contains a number of superlative players and we just have to respect that fact. There’s always a lot of talk about why we didn’t win the tournament, or what’s wrong with our team, but we should remember that for many countries winning the competition isn’t a realistic ambition. Sometimes, coming second or third is a good result. Personally speaking, I believe much of it is down to luck, although Spain are without doubt the best side in the world right now.
From a coach’s perspective, what’s the biggest difference between a club side and a national team?
I happen to love coaching countries. You're busy with your team all the time. Take Iraq: I joined them late last year and already we have played in the WAFF Championship, the Gulf Cup and the Asian Cup. Although there is theoretically some free time, really you have to be focused 24 hours a day. With my job here I’ve had no time off, just a run of training camps, friendly internationals and tournaments. With a club you have a match at the end of each week, so you’re generally busy full-time for ten months of the year or more. After that you might get three or four weeks off at the end of the season.
What are the advantages of hosting the FIFA World Cup in the Middle East?
I first came to the region ten years ago, and there’s been a huge amount of progress since that time. Back then, people loved their football but the quality wasn’t always there. Things are more professional now. Top coaches work out here and the standard of football is much improved. It’s like what happened in Africa when FIFA decided to stage a World Cup there. It benefited the continent as a whole. Everyone in the Middle East loves football, and that goes for women too. When I came here there was no women’s football at all, but now there is, and people are starting to get enthusiastic about it.