Sunday, May 19, 2013


Singapore's Stange

It has taken almost six months but Singapore have finally appointed a new coach to replace the now departed Radojko Avramovic and after months of less than frantic speculation, we are after all talking about Singapore where they are more concerned about Sir Alex Ferguson than their own national team, the Football Association have opted for Bernd Stange.

The 65 year old German inherits a Singapore team that won the ASEAN Football Federation Cup at the end of last year. Avramovic was by far the best coach Singapore have had and leaves behind a hard act to follow.

Players like Baihakki Khaizan and Khairul Amri have added consistency to their undoubted talent while younger players like Hariss Harun and Shafiq Ghani are evidence of a productive conveyer belt of young talent, one that Stange will look to reap the benefits of.

He certainly brings a lot to the table. While rumours were rife Singapore were on the verge of appointing the likes of David O’Leary or Peter Taylor the headhunters appointed to lead the recruitment obviously saw something they liked in the experienced coach.

After hanging up his boots in 1970 Stange worked his way up through the coaching ranks at Carl Zeiss Jena in the old East Germany. He then switched to the national team and in a similar example of seamless Teutonic efficiency started off with the Under 21s before becoming assistant manager of the national and leading the Olympic team in 1984 before taking over the national team that same year.

The former East Germany was a very different place to West Germany across the border. A communist state with an all pervading secret police, the Stasi, freedoms were at a premium for the vast majority of people and while sports were seen as a way of glorifying the communist way ordinary people had to make do with shortages and restrictions.

From 1973 to 1986 it was reported Stange was an informer for the Stasi and on one occasion he broke into a flat to steal a diary. On another time he reportedly informed on a family friend’s plans to flee the country. Attempts to escape from the workers’ paradise were frowned upon by the state. The border was heavily guarded and soldiers were not afraid to shoot people trying to escape to the west.

In 1984 when coach of the national team it was reported Stange had contacted another coach, Jorg Berger, who had managed to escape to West Germany and asked him what he knew about the current East German national team. The Stasi used this to claim Berger was actively seeking to help players escape to the west, an example of the extreme paranoia that hung over the Communist  country.

“Stange was already the national coach and had no need to do this,” said Berger. “He was just career-obsessed and it was also about money.”

In the fine tradition of communists when the wall came down and the two Germanys became one Stange was there looking for a job, ending up with Hertha Berlin the second division but after his previous activities became known he had to resign and found work with Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine before coaching Perth Glory to the National Soccer League in Australia.

He spent three months coaching the Oman national team before taking over Iraq in 2002 at the same time the US president George W Bush was banging the war drum over Iraq and their weapons of mass destruction. In the face of criticism back in Germany Stange was unrepentant. “I had a choice between staying unemployed or taking this job in Iraq.”

However questions over his judgment were raised when it was revealed Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday, had tortured Iraqi players. He just  dismissed the story as “manipulation”.

He showed another side to his character though, returning to the country four months after the US led invasion and laying the groundwork for the team that would win the AFC Asian Cup in Jakarta in 2007.

It was a dangerous time to be in Iraq when it was tearing itself apart in a sectarian bloodshed that followed the invasion.

"My car was shot at," he told BBC Sport. "I had death threats because there was a picture in the newspaper of me with the British foreign minister Jack Straw and 5,000 footballs that he had given us. "A photo of me with the mortal enemy! After that I had to leave the country."

His perseverance in difficult circumstances had gone some way towards deflecting the wrath he had received back home in Germany with Andrew McKenzie writing on the BBC website “The man accused of being a puppy dog to a dictator was now painted as a hero who had taken a stand against the war in the name of the beautiful game.”

After a short spell in Cyprus Stange found himself taking on another tough role with Belarus. Widely regarded as Europe’s most repressive state Stange again found himself in the firing line but remained stubborn, insisting he was a football coach first and foremost.

“I’m the national manager of a country with a huge football tradition and that’s all that counts. My working conditions are as good as anything that I’ve experienced in my long football career.”

He was however impressed by the cleanliness and safety the Belarus capital, Minsk, afforded its citizens, qualities no doubt that will endear him to the Singapore faithful.

From East Germany to Singapore via Iraq and Belarus, Stange certainly boasts an interesting CV but as he says, nobody ever called from Bayern Munchen or Manchester United.

"I have worked for communist regimes, capitalists, for a sultanate and a dictator, but my work is always the same. It's only ever about one thing - putting the ball in the net."

SOURCE - This first appeared in the Jakarta Globe 17/5/13

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