Until April, Bernd Stange was coach of the Iraqi national team. He left the country on account of increasing security concerns in the country, finally resigning his position in July after coaching the team by telephone in the intervening period. Just one month later, the team Stange built caused a sensation by reaching the semi-finals of the Olympic Football Tournament, losing narrowly to Italy in the bronze medal decider.
Stange also missed out on the 1984 Olympics during his reign as East Germany coach, when the country boycotted the Los Angeles Games on political grounds. FIFA.com spoke with Stange about the Iraqi team's performance, and their prospects for the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, as well as the difficult conditions in the Middle East country.
Herr Stange, Iraq finished fourth at the Olympic Football Tournament. Your reaction?
It is fantastic what the team have achieved. Words cannot do justice to their success. Since the end of the war, these players have soared up the FIFA World Ranking from 74th to 40th place despite the most horrendous conditions in Iraq. That alone was incredible. I am delighted that I was able to play a major part leading up to the success, but my input has finished and all of the credit goes to coach Adnan Hamad and the players. When I saw the players on the pitch, whom I had coached at the pre-Olympic training camp in England, I was extremely proud to see them using the set pieces I had showed them. My time in Iraq was my most difficult period as a coach and I am delighted that they have been able to enjoy such success.
What was the key to the team acquitting themselves so well?
It was definitely an advantage that I and my successor Adnan Hamad were able to coach the players like a club team. We took them to Australia, Germany, England and Italy, and many of the younger players had been together in the Under-17s and Under-20s. I hope this team will not disintegrate, but I fear that it will. If more and more players go to foreign clubs, it will be difficult for the coach in the future. The players would only be available three days before an international. And some will certainly secure transfers abroad after performing so impressively on the Olympic stage. There are already some who play in Qatar such as Mohammed Emad, and defender Jabar Haidar is in talks with MSV Duisburg in Germany. And if coach Hamad accepts a lucrative offer from abroad, it will be very difficult to find a successor the same calibre. I could understand it if he did make such a move because one of the reasons I went to Iraq was that the financial package was right.
How would you describe the Iraqi players?
They are very egotistical like any other players around the world. They are all striving for lucrative professional contracts abroad and who can blame them? They want to support their families, but the national players are poor. They only receive 200 dollars a month. Of course, they are also playing for the honour of their country. That is definitely an additional motivating factor. However, you have to say that the players are also a little spoilt. The young players have already tasted luxury at tournaments and the many training camps abroad, and it has gone to the heads of some players. They complain if they have to eat à la carte or stay in a guest house because they are already used to lavish buffets and luxury accommodation in the oil countries.
Could you reiterate the difficulties you had to contend with during your tenure?
|A moment of joy for Emad Mohammed of Iraq|
We sometimes had to sleep in airports because we had no money for accommodation. We had to train in the heat of the afternoon because you could not switch lights on in the evenings for security reasons, which meant that we could not train. We were short of everything. Today at least the financial situation has been alleviated because the government has a budget for the national team, even if it is still a small amount. Obviously we could not play any home games. The Al-Shaab Stadium in Baghdad is a guarantee for success when 50,000 passionate fans are roaring us on. The support in national stadiums in other countries such as Afghanistan or Pakistan does not compare. It was not always easy from a personal perspective either. When I introduced weight training into the fitness regime for example, I incurred the wrath of numerous Iraqi coaches. They had never trained in that way and thought that I would damage their players. I showed them a picture of Michael Ballack to illustrate that he did not just get his muscles from eating the right food. Now they can see that it was the right decision. I put a great deal of hard work and even some financial resources into the job. I am still owed part of my salary from this year, but that is not so important. I will receive it sooner or later. The Iraqis are honest people. I am proud that I could emulate Guus Hiddink with South Korea in assembling a group of players who were scattered around the country and making them into a powerful team.
How much external support did you receive?
I received a lot of outside support; from FIFA, who played an important role and offered aid to Iraq immediately after the end of the war; from DFB President Gerhard Mayer-Vorfelder, who ensured that we were given kit and plenty of other equipment during our visit to Germany. Personal friends from Australia also supported us. I also secured sponsors for Iraq, such as LC Electronics. I am just proud to have been an important figure in a difficult time in Iraq's football history, but the success is solely due to the players. I do not want to take any of the credit. It is fantastic what they have achieved. Of course I could see myself returning there as coach, but it is still not clear when the security situation will improve sufficiently, and I cannot wait forever.
What needs to be improved in Iraq?
It is important that the infrastructure is improved, training grounds are built, a professional league is introduced and that football is generally given a higher profile. There are obviously a lot of problems in Iraq, but they have failed to give football the necessary support. People have not recognised the significance of the game in Iraq, otherwise there would have been a grass pitch long ago. They have missed an opportunity to reach the hearts of their fellow Iraqis with just a few small gestures. I even wrote impassioned letters to US President George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi. We were invited for a training camp in Italy and had a reception with Jack Straw in England. Almost the entire team were there with the exception of six players from Basra who were afraid to travel. I did not receive a reply from Bush.
Why did you resign your position in April? Surely the security situation was critical beforehand?
There were two decisive reasons. Firstly the request of the Foreign Ministry to leave the country, and secondly that the situation was continually worsening. It was enormously difficult for everybody. To give you one example; my driver Siad Tarek, a former Asian karate champion was shot a few minutes after dropping me off at the Sheraton hotel one time. A bullet went through his hand, and he also received a head wound. I must say that I never felt unsafe in Iraq, but nobody would have understood if I had stayed.
Returning to sport. How do you assess the development of Asian football in general?
I think football in Asia has made huge strides, more so than in Africa, partly due to the incredible financial resources. That can also occasionally produce excessive growth, as seen in Qatar. In the medium term, I think countries that have a good infrastructure, such as Japan or South Korea, can make further progress. Money alone does not produce a good team. That is why I believe teams from the oil nations will struggle. With their mentality, it is difficult to motivate the players to work harder in training. I hope Iraq can resume a prominent role in football as it enjoyed in Asia before the war.
How do you rate Iraq's chances in the Preliminary Competition for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™?
If this team can stay together, they have a good chance of qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. I have always said that. The same group of players that represented Iraq at the Olympic Games in Athens will also contest the qualifying games, along with two or three new additions to the team.