Mozambique made waves in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ as they pushed continental powers Nigeria and Tunisia all the way to the wire in the final group stage. The minnows ultimately missed out on a prized place at the global showdown, but it was a first sign of new and vibrant life from the south-east Africans, who are now looking to build on their creditable performance and claim a berth at Brazil 2014. To lead them, Mozambique have turned to experienced German coach Gert Engels.
The 55-year-old, whose most successful spell as a player came with Borussia Monchengladbach in the mid-1970s, is now aiming to take Os Mambas to the next level. Some 30 years on from his heyday in Gladbach colours, Engels rates as a shining example of a successful transition from pro player to overseas-based coach.
After some 20 years in Japan, where Engels took charge of Yokohama, JEF United, Kyoto Purple Sanga and Urawa Red Diamonds, the Rhineland native signed a three-year contract to coach Mozambique in October 2011. Despite his wealth of experience, the coach admits the appointment came as a surprise.
“I was available and I basically thought I'd keep working in Japan," Engels told FIFA.com. "But the opportunity with Mozambique went through incredibly quickly. The German FA recommended me to the local association. After brief but thorough talks I simply signed a contract."
After just a few months, the father of two has completely transferred his personal life and centre of operations to south-east Africa, where he now resides in capital city Maputo. His wife and son currently live in Germany, and his daughter is studying in London, so the situation is far from ideal. However, Engels considers it a necessary evil.
“As a national coach, it's incredibly important to be as close as possible to what's going on," he explained. "It's the only way I can be sure I'm involved in the exchange of views with all the important people. Obviously it's not easy, as my family is staying in Germany for now, but we're already looking at schools for my son, and we're not ruling out my wife and son joining me in the near future."
Despite the complex personal situation, Engels’ focus is fully on his work with Mozambique, with the qualifying competitions for Brazil 2014 and the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2013 in full swing. Compared to his decades in Japan, Engels is now fighting a totally different set of problems.
"Mozambique is still one of the poorest nations in the world, so there are financial limits to what we can do with the national team," he said. "For this reason, we have to be even more thorough when we review our organisation and structures. There's talent here and people work very hard, so I'm convinced we can achieve a great deal more if we pull together."
Working hand-in-hand with Torsten Spittler, the Mozambique Football Federation's technical director, Engels has already set many changes in motion. The national team squad has been significantly rejuvenated, and the German duo have implemented a uniform development system for the junior national teams, which is even now bearing fruit as products of the new programme find their way into the senior squad.
Engels and his team are experienced enough not to be disheartened by the irritations and problems which crop up almost daily, as he noted with a smile: “Every day in Mozambique is exciting, and you experience 1,000 things you weren't expecting. Once we turned up for training but the pitch was already in use, so we simply couldn't train. Another time there weren't enough seats on the team bus! Some of the players and I had to follow the bus in a taxi."
But these are ultimately minor hurdles, easily outweighed by the special and unforgettable moments Engels has experienced when working with his keen young players. “The atmosphere was really thrilling on the bus to our away match against Comoros," he recalled of the game in the first round of African Zone qualifying for Brazil 2014. "The team suddenly started singing and clapping. Even I removed my headphones and joined in, although I didn't really know the words!"
Mozambique duly defeated the islanders twice and progressed to the second phase, where they are grouped with Egypt, Guinea and Zimbabwe. The opening match ended in a 2-0 defeat to the Pharaohs, although not before Engels’ men had put up a terrific fight.
“Obviously we're not favourites in the group, but there are still five matches to play and we want to show what we can do," he said, now looking ahead to the meeting with Zimbabwe on 10 June. "Everything is possible in football, as I've experienced over and over again in my long career.
“My team has already visibly improved, as confirmed by our Europe-based players, who don't see the team on a regular basis. They're positively surprised and that’s testimony to our work. It would be nice if we were still in with a chance after the match against Zimbabwe. Regardless, I'm certain we'll pick up a few points."