By Teng Kiat & Khalis Rifhan
With the appointment of Bernd Stange as the new Singapore coach on Wednesday evening, Lions supporters appear to have got themselves one of the most interesting coaches in international football to lead their national team.
There are those who are already aware that the German brings more than just his footballing credentials to the sunny island. A cursory search on the Internet reveals that the former Belarus manager has been linked with the communist regime of the old East Germany’s official state security service, more commonly known as the Stasi.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, previously confidential Stasi documents revealed Stange’s role in the state: he was code-named "Kurt Wegner", and was tasked by the state with informing on his players. The then-Hertha Berlin and ex-East Germany manager stepped down after such allegations surfaced, but that didn’t stop him from going to take on controversial roles in his storied managerial career.
One such decision was taking up the Iraq job in 2002, not long after he was fired after less than three months as Oman coach in 2001. Stange guided them into the top 50 of the Fifa rankings and the 2004 Asian Cup quarter-finals, setting the foundation for the Saddam Hussein-ruled country to eventually win the 2007 edition. Iraq also made it to the Athen Olympics in 2004, where they finished fourth, although Stange was forced to flee the country a few months prior due to threats to his life after being pictured with then Foreign Secretary of the British Government Jack Straw.
For those achievements, he was subsequently presented with the Fifa Presidential Award from president Sepp Blatter for helping to rebuild Iraqi football.
Stange’s next notable role was at Cypriot top-flight side Apollon Limassol, whom he led to league glory in the 2005-06 season, in which they finished unbeaten having battled relegation only the year before. That was their first title in 12 years, and he also brought them the 2006 Cypriot Super Cup, which remains their only one to date.
Europe was his next port of call as he took over the reins at Belarus in July 2007, where president Alexander Lukashenko runs rule over what the US State Deparment has described as "Europe’s only remaining outpost of tyranny".
The politics clearly didn’t bother Stange, who revamped the national team with a heavy emphasis on youth. That brought some memorable results as they beat an already-qualified Netherlands 2-1 in their last Uefa Euro 2008 qualifier, while also defeating eventual group winners France 1-0 in Paris in Euro 2012 qualifying during Laurent Blanc’s first game in charge.
Belarus also held the French to a 1-1 draw in the home tie, as Stange led a side built around former Arsenal and Barcelona midfielder Alexander Hleb from 94th to 36th in the Fifa rankings – a position that remains their highest ever.
Stange left after his Belarus contract was up at the end of their unsuccessful Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, and has now ended up in the hot seat of the reigning Southeast Asian champions.
He was clearly prepared to be questioned about his past at the press conference and made it clear that despite having worked in communist regimes, with dictators, capitalists and teams with limited budgets, he was always focused on his footballing tasks.
“I have coached so many teams in countries with different political systems, and in East Germany… even a Sultanate and clubs in democracies like Australia or Germany, and even Ukraine and Cyprus,” Stange unflinchingly responded to a local reporter.
“These are all different systems, but don’t forget that you have to put the ball in the net, and everywhere it is the same.
“There are young guys in Iraq after the war, they want to play football and [as a] coach [I] should not be involved in too many political questions and discussions.
“My job is football and to try to win matches, which is the most important thing.”
While the new man in charge of the Lions certainly has a colourful past, there is no denying that he brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the job. The 65-year-old’s past experiences in working under harsh conditions and tight scrutiny from international media could have contributed to his passion and determination to prove critics wrong, as demonstrated by his accomplishments with Iraq and Belarus.
Stange might not be the big name many craved when the region’s most successful coach in Radojko Avramovic stepped down, but his decent track record with unfashionable teams should means he deserves the backing of the Singapore supporters for now.