Osasu Obayiuwana’s Postcard from Gabon: A German in Africa

With a coaching career in Africa spanning almost five decades - 45 years to be exact - Otto Pfister has seen the ecstatically good, the frustratingly bad, and the extremely ugly sides of the continent’s football.

Starting with Rwanda’s national team in 1972 and having his last African stint with USM Alger in 2015 - managing the Leopards of Zaire (now DR Congo), Ghana’s Black Stars, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions and several other teams in between - the 79-year-old German, from Cologne, is a walking encyclopaedia of how African football has evolved.

“In Rwanda, I was a beginner. I was very young then. It was my first experience with African players… The first thing I learnt was that to work successfully in Africa, you have to learn how to compromise. If not, you will never be successful.

“I could not come to Africa with my German mentality and change the world. A lot of big coaches have flopped in Africa because they think they can impose the English or the French mentality. It’s not possible.

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“I’ve been very happy working on the continent and have never had a problem with the star players, only with the officials.”

“95 percent of the top players in Africa have been in my hands – Tony Baffoe, Abedi Pele, Anthony Yeboah, Opoku Nti, Hossam Hassan, Ibrahim Hassan, Samuel Eto’o, Emmanuel Adebayor and Sammy Kuffour…

“Samuel Eto’o was like a baby. I never had a problem with him…

“I have a philosophy which is that I am a technical man. In every place that I have worked, I can come back [to work] because I never touch political things, money and juju. These are three things that are taboo for me.”

Pfister made his Afcon coaching debut with Burkina Faso (then known as Upper Volta) at the 1978 finals in Ghana, making subsequent appearances in 1988 with the Leopards of Zaire (now DR Congo), in 1992 with the Black Stars and, in 2008, with Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions.

Although he reached the Afcon final, with Ghana and Cameroon, Pfister never won the ultimate prize. But he would not trade his African football odyssey for any other.

“When I am back in Switzerland, because my wife is Swiss, you have to deal with so many things, like driving properly and ensuring that you don’t get parking tickets. That is not a life for me,” he laughs.

“I am not a money-hunter. When I was young, I was interested in reading the adventures of explorers like David Livingstone and Henry Stanley. Many people in Europe only get to know Africa from what they see on TV. I wanted to see Africa with my own eyes.

“I could combine being in a exotic country with working as a football coach and earning a good living for my family, which was good for me.”

As Pfister admits, Africa is one of the few continents where the profile of a national team coach is so important that they often have a close personal relationship with the president of the country.

“Where else but in Africa can a national team coach have a whiskey-cola with the president of the republic? Can a coach of a national team in Europe do that?

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“When I was in Zaire [DR Congo], we had a match against Angola and President Mobutu Sese Seko was on his ship. He sent three of his bodyguards to bring me to him, at 3am in the morning.

“It was a 65-kilometre trip from Kinshasa, where I was, to where the president was staying. When Mobutu saw me he said: “Coach, you know that tomorrow we have a game against Angola. You know we have a border with Angola. Please win the game! I don’t like Eduardo dos Santos [Angola’s president].”

“I said to him: ‘my president, there is no problem’. We won the game.”

“Later on, before our final round of qualification matches for the 1988 Cup of Nations in Morocco, Mobutu sent for me again. It was our final game against Senegal.

“‘Coach, we have to win these matches and qualify for the tournament. What do you think about preparation?’ Mobutu asked me.

“Before we had met, Mobutu had been on an official visit to Argentina and he was crazy about Diego Maradona, so I told him that we should go to Argentina!

“Mobutu picked up his telephone and called the minister: ‘The team wants to prepare in Argentina and the organisation is up to you.’ And that was it. The team met up in Paris and we went to Argentina.”

Although the Septuagenarian is not coaching any team in Gabon, he is attending the tournament and is a bit despondent about the state of the Africa Cup of Nations.

“When you have a Cup of Nations in Nigeria or Ghana, you have a completely different ambience. But in this part of the continent, I really don’t understand why it is like this.

“When I was at the Africa Cup of Nations in 1980 [staged by Nigeria], the stadium in Lagos would be full by 9am for a game that is starting at 4pm. It was the same in Ibadan, which was the other venue. It was fantastic. It was the same when you had the tournament in Morocco, Algeria and Egypt.

“But what are we seeing in Gabon? I was told that at some venues we barely have a few thousand. I don’t understand what is happening in this continent.

“Perhaps it is because it is a small country, I don’t know. Maybe things will be better at the 2019 tournament in Cameroon. In my opinion, the last Africa Cup of Nations that had a lot of energy and passion was the 2008 tournament in Ghana.”

Pfister is also not enthused about the quality of African footballers, claiming that there has been a drop in quality.

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“Where are the Abedi Peles, the Anthony Yeboahs, the big African players? Remember Sunday Oliseh? What a player! Or Jay-Jay Okocha? Do you see another player like him in the world? I don’t.

“African players used to begin their development at home, in their own environment, before going to Europe. Tony Yeboah, for instance, was a goal king in Ghana before he became a goal king in Germany and the captain of Eintracht Frankfurt.

“But what do we see now? African players are taken to academies when they are very young and are groomed to play like Europeans. They take away their African essence, the thing that makes them unique. I am against these academies. They are like chicken farms,” says an agitated Pfister.

The biggest stage - with Togo at the 2006 World Cup
The biggest stage - with Togo at the 2006 World Cup

The 2006 World Cup finals in Germany was the only time that Pfister, by a stroke of providence, went to the World Cup as a manager.

He was the emergency choice of a disorganised Togo, which had mysteriously sacked the late African football legend, Stephen Keshi, who had achieved the incredible feat of getting them there.

But, as he – and the rest of the world – remembers, it was a complete disaster on the pitch and in the dressing room. A financial problem between the players and the Togo Football Federation, over unpaid bonuses, forced FIFA to intervene when the players threatened to boycott their group game against Switzerland.

Pfister had resigned as Togo coach before that tournament and had to be convinced to return, to what was clearly a messy situation.

“Many journalists ask me why an African team has not won a World Cup. I tell them that it is a stupid question… if you can take the sports infrastructure of Germany and transfer this to an African country and, there is also 100 percent [professional] organisation, it is then that an African team can win the World Cup.”

Pfister’s last African assignment was with Algerian club USM Alger, in 2015, at the age of 78, when most coaches would have long retired. But that is not in the German’s lexicon.

“It’s not a question of age. It is a question of love. Life without football is no life for me. Even in Switzerland, I sometimes go to watch games on Sunday for 12-year olds.”

“I am always ready to work. But I have never begged anyone for a job. It is always people that come and look for me. I ended my coaching career five times. But always, a telephone call comes: ‘Otto, we need you. You are ready?’ There are three things in my life – family, football and chess. The rest is not my problem,” he laughs.

With 10 months to his 80th birthday, Pfister has a simple sentence on how he wants to be remembered. “Otto Pfister was a football coach in Africa. Stop.”

That would be an easy epitaph to write. But the life of this interesting man has been anything but.

And, as crazy as it sounds, there might just be one job left in him.

GROUP A Pld Pts
Portugal 3 7
Mexico 3 7
Russia 3 3
New Zealand 3 0
GROUP B Pld Pts
Germany 3 7
Chile 3 5
Australia 3 2
Cameroon 2 1
GROUP C Pld Pts
GROUP D Pld Pts
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