PERTH Glory’s favourite son, Bernd Stange, is literally back in the firing line as a coach – this time with the Syrian national team.
Stange was in Perth in November, 2016, as a special guest speaker at the Football Hall of Fame WA’s lavish induction night which also coincided with the 20th anniversary of the organisation.
He had just stepped down as coach of the Singapore national team and indicated that his significant global roaming as an international coach was probably at an end.
But now, at the age of 70, Stange has signed a contract to lead Syria until at least the 2019 Asian Cup finals.
It is an appointment that will pit him against Australia, and new Socceroos coach Graham Arnold, in the Asian Cup. The last time they crossed swords was when Arnold was coach of Northern Spirit and Stange was in charge of the Glory in the old NSL nearly 20 years ago.
Syria proved a tough nut to beat in last year’s World Cup qualifers when the Aussies were pushed all the way before winning 2-1 in a crucial play-off game after being held 1-1 in the first leg, which was played in Malaysia.
The Socceroos will face Syria again in the Asian Cup finals, which will be held in the United Arab Emirates. The other teams in Group B are Jordan and Palestine.
The championship, which has been expanded from 16 to 24 teams for the finals, will be held in eight venues in four cities in the UAE from January 5 to February 1.
The problems of preparing a team in a war zone are nothing new for Stange, who led the Iraqi national team from 2002 until 2004.
But what motivates him to work in a country where, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 400,000 people have been killed or reported missing over seven years of war?
“I believe we should bring back a smile to Syrian people who have suffered for such a long time,” he told the BBC’s World Football programme. “They love football.”
But, for a man who spends half of his time in capital city Damascus, there are psychological challenges that come with life in a war zone.
“I saw destroyed Ghouta and Douma,” he said, referring to the sites of suspected chemical attacks.
“Sometimes you hear what you think is lightning but it’s bombing.
“I will not say it is normal life. If you are travelling to Aleppo, to Homs, and you see what’s happened there, left and right of the street, you cannot speak for a while and you are deeply depressed.
“It’s such an old country, and Damascus is a wonderful city. If you feel how long it will take to clean up the country and to bring back normal life, maybe it will take one generation.”
Stange is yet to meet the Syrian president Assad but said: “If I have the chance to see him, of course I will go.
“The football federation is run independently by only a few people, and it’s not involved in any politics. I can take my own decisions, it’s part of my contract.”
Stange also never met former president Saddam Hussein while coaching Iraq, a job he held for two years from 2002.
Nevertheless, he was referred to as ‘Saddam’s Coach’ in his homeland, and heavily criticised.
“I coached the national team of Iraq before the war, and I was blamed for that, especially by Western media,” he said.
“I coached the same national team three weeks after the war, when everything was destroyed, and from this moment I achieved so many awards for doing the same job: coaching a football team to put the ball in the net.”
A day before the US-led invasion that finally toppled Saddam in 2003, Stange left Iraq on the orders of the German embassy.
“I went back one week after the war with the idea to tell them face to face that I will not continue my contract,” he said.
“When I arrived at the hotel, I saw the players and their families, and the whole football federation. They were waiting for me and singing my name: ‘Captain Stange is back, is back.’
“My heart was broken and, being honest, I was not able to tell them: ‘I will let you down.'”
Stange’s travels in his managerial career:
1982-1988: East Germany
July 1989-May 1991: Carl Zeiss Jena (East Germany)
July 1991-August 1992: Hertha Berlin (Germany)
August 1994-March 1995: Hertha Berlin (Germany)
April 1995-June 1995: Dnipro (Ukraine)
July 1996: CSKA Kiev (Ukraine)
July 1998-December 2000: Perth Glory
June 2001-September 2001: Oman
November 2002-June 2004: Iraq
January 2005-January 2007: Apollon Limassol (Cyprus)
July 2007-November 2011: Belarus
May 2013-April 2016: Singapore
February 2018-: Syria
PIC ONE: Bernd Stange makes a point at the 2016 Hall of Fame induction night. PIC TWO: Bernd on his appointment with the Iraq national team.