Ex-Perth boss looking to put smile back on Syrian faces

Bernd Stange spent three years in charge of Perth Glory but when the German left Western Australia in 2001, he could never have predicted where his career was would take him.

 There he was as head coach of Iraq when the US-led invasion took place in 2003.

Now, 15 years on, he is in charge of Syria and preparing for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup and a group that contains Australia, Jordan and Palestine. 

At the age of 70, Stange could have been forgiven for taking it easy back in 2016 when he left his job as Singapore head coach.

In January however, he was given one of the toughest jobs around and in January will be trying to bring success to a country that has been torn apart by civil war since 2011. 

“When you travel around you can see the cities that have been destroyed,” Stange told The World Game.

“You can also see how long it is going to be before life has any chance of returning to normal.” 

He hopes to play a tiny part in making that happen by success on the pitch but Stange is careful to steer clear of politics. It is a wise move.

In 2015, he was Singapore boss when, ahead of a 2018 World Cup qualifier with Syria, his opposite number attended a press conference with a t-shirt sporting the smiling face of President Bashar al-Assad.   

“The situation here is very complex and you have to be very careful what you say. My job is to prepare for the Asian Cup and I am totally focused on that. What we want to do is to put a smile back on the face of a country that loves football,” he said, mentioning the celebrations in the capital of Damascus when the team booked a place in the continental playoff ahead of the 2018 World Cup. 

The opposition was, of course, Australia with Tim Cahill grabbing the winner in second-leg extra time Stange has already mentioned the Syrian desire for revenge over the Socceroos when they meet in the final Group B game in Al Ain on January 15 but there is a bigger prize at stake.

“The Asian Cup is a good chance for us to make different kind of headlines about Syria. People would be proud if we can do well," he said. 

Syria have made little impact on the continent, appearing just five times and only once since 1996.  

“Our first target is to get to the second round and that has never happened before so we are thinking only of that.” 

Yet to be honest, while the second round would be uncharted territory, failure to get there would be a big one.

As the Socceroos saw in 2017, there is talent to spare there. Omar Khribin was named Asian Player of the Year in the same year and if his late free-kick had not hit the post late in the game in Sydney, Australia may well have been watching the Middle Easterners in Russia on television and not the other way around. 

Khribin is still there, though his club situation with Saudi Arabia giants Al Hilal is somewhat in flux with a move to Egypt on the cards and it is rumoured that he does not want to go. Omar Al Soma is also one of the best forwards in Asia. 

Ibrahim Alma is a talented goalkeeper with a special ability to slow the game down and when you also throw in an impressive team spirit and readiness to keep going until the last second and it all makes for a formidable opponent. 

Despite the political situation, domestic football is ongoing, though only in certain parts of the country, with the regime keen to see life go on with as much normalcy as possible.

“The local league is at a decent level but 95% of our players are based in other countries such as Holland, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Lebanon. There is a lot of experience there and we are preparing for the Asian Cup in a normal way. Players are back in their clubs and start in the United Arab Emirates on December 22,” he said. 

“We know that it will be difficult with games against Jordan and Palestine as these are local games and then there is Australia, the champions of Asia. But then this is the Asian Cup and you expect everything to be difficult and that is why we are looking forward to the challenge and putting a smile on the face of Syria.”