Pressure? This feels like a holiday to me, says Bernd Stange

Bernd Stange is ready to deliver a memorable time for local fans when Singapore hosts the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup at home in November.
Bernd Stange is ready to deliver a memorable time for local fans when Singapore hosts the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup at home in November.ST PHOTOS: KUA CHEE SIONG

In an exclusive interview, Bernd Stange takes stock of his challenges in his first year as national coach of the Singapore football team

He is a product of the Cold War, hails from Germany and some say he is the wind of change trying to blow through Singapore football.

Almost a year after his appointment as the national coach and after some mixed results, Bernd Stange is under pressure to deliver.

Media-friendly yet curiously elusive, he is always available for comment at the training ground or at the Football Association of Singapore's (FAS) office in Jalan Besar but never shares his mobile-phone number with the press.

In this exclusive interview, Stange picked a cafe at Kallang to meet with The Sunday Times.

It is appropriate given that the backdrop is the Singapore Sports Hub, where the Lions will play on Aug 8 against Malaysia in the new national stadium's first public test for football.

Animated, authoritative yet not authoritarian, the 66-year-old is clear about his targets, the stress it brings and even demonstrated his knowledge of modern pop culture.

He noted: "The pressure will come with the opening of the Sports Hub. It means we have to fill one of the best stadiums in Asia with top-class football, and we have to deliver.

"This stadium is not built for Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift. It's built for high-profile sports in Singapore. And football in the No.1 sport in Singapore. We have to bring the Kallang Roar back.

"And the pressure will come from the public, from the media, from the owner of the stadium.

"To reach that level of performance, we have to do our jobs better every single day."

Come December, the pressure will be dialled up many more notches when Singapore defend their Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup crown in that venue.

Former national coaches Vincent Subramaniam (2000) and Jan Poulsen (2002) both left the hot seat after first-round exits in previous editions of the tournament.

Stange took over from Raddy Avramovic, who helped Singapore to an unprecedented fourth Asean title two years ago, after the successes in 1998, 2004 and 2007.

The Serb was at the helm for the last three triumphs - a feat never before accomplished.

But Stange is absolutely tingling with the buzz the AFF Cup brings.

He said: "I enjoy pressure, I like pressure and I'm looking forward to this great tournament here in our home country. It's a highlight to perform in big stadiums. This feels like a holiday for me.

"The best would be to win the gold medal. That is what we want to achieve. But you can never be sure in football.

"I promise - we will have a very well-prepared team for that tournament."

He revealed that the Lions will train in Austria from July 7-22 and play three matches against club sides. A week before the Malaysia game, there will be a closed-door friendly at the Sports Hub against a low-ranking international team.

And until the AFF Cup in November, FAS will arrange for more sparring games to keep the Lions sharp.


When the white-haired grandfather of one was unveiled by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) on May 15, it was his first job in two years since coaching the Belarus national team from 2007-11, beating more than 100 applicants to the contract.

Some might have wondered if a fossil had been hired, a relic from the Iron Curtain armed with prehistoric game plans.

Instead, he drips science and talks haute couture tactics, bringing in a battery of high-tech equipment, from a body-fat measuring device to video-analysis tools, to quantify the players' performance and fitness and, ultimately, extract more from them.

While his predecessor Avramovic believes in soak and strike, Stange wants to shock and awe.

He wants the Lions to dominate with rapid short passes, regardless of the opponent, to be the sheep in wolf's clothing and to be the hunter, not the hunted.

His big talk is not hot air either. He had taken Belarus, one of Europe's whipping boys, to their highest-ever Fifa ranking of 36 in 2011 and recorded a memorable win over the Netherlands and draws against Argentina and Germany.

Question marks

Avramovic lost 14 of his first 20 games in charge. In comparison, Stange has won five and lost six out of his 11 matches in charge.

But question marks remain over the new style of football. Football's elite like Spain average more than 700 passes completed in a game. When Bayern Munich beat Manchester United 3-1 last week, Pep Guardiola's men recorded 1,078 passes. During Singapore's 6-1 defeat by China last September, the Lions completed just 276 passes.

Stange has since conducted four sharing sessions with local coaches and hopes the community will embrace his ideas.

He said: "I try to convince but I am not responsible for the clubs. If they go another way, I cannot force them. I'll just be polite and explain to them."

And when asked if the Lions will persist with his brand of high-tempo, one-touch football, Stange's reply was a firm "yes" and added that his philosophy would be indoctrinated at all levels, from the national team down to students at the Sports School.

But there are certain things about Singapore football which Stange found strange.

His disappointment with the Lions' decrepit training field at Geylang Lorong 12 was well-publicised. This led to the Singapore Sports Council, in consultation with Stange, refurbishing the facility with improved natural turf and upgraded amenities for players and officials by the end of this year.

He said: "I'm happy with the rebuilding of Geylang Field. It could be a role model for other clubs in Singapore. But, at the moment, there are still not enough quality pitches in Singapore.

"Singapore has good athletes, a strong economy, government grants and fantastic weather. It snows for six months in Belarus.

"We have everything. I have to tell the truth about the pitches. We need more support."

Also, professional footballers in Singapore generally train once a day. Not enough, Stange says.

He reasoned: "I've never ever seen a football player who only has a night training session who gets better by sitting in a Starbucks cafe in the morning.

"Instead, he should have more training - 45 minutes on skills, 45 minutes of fitness, maybe one hour of rehabilitation, massage, physiotherapy and another training session in the evening. That's the way of international football."

While he is puzzled by the idiosyncrasies here, Stange is impressed with his employers, saying: "I've been in coaching for more than 30 years and FAS is definitely the most professional and well-organised organisation I've worked at.

"I appreciate that FAS has placed much emphasis on its youth development structure and programmes - which is the right way forward especially in view of its limited budget."

The FAS and the national team operates on a budget of $8.5 million a year, a fraction of what Japan ($264 million), China ($180 million) and even Indonesia ($112 million) and Malaysia ($35 million) are getting.

Apart from football, Stange is passionate about golf and candidly revealed that he has a handicap of 27. Married to Dorothea, a nurse, since 1975, they have two sons - Martin, a 39-year-old consultant in Munich, and Michael, 36, who works for the European Union in Paris.


Stange lives in a condominium unit at Tanjong Rhu but he still has a home in the hills of Jena, a German city of 100,000.

It was there that he first received a phone call early last year from a recruitment agency telling him about the Singapore job vacancy.

He itched for one more shot at glory, to feel, hear and taste a big-match atmosphere.

He said wistfully: "I was not able to sit at home in my home town to cut roses in my garden. I felt if I stopped working, I would get sick.

"And then I had the challenge here in Singapore and I'm happy to take that even at my age. I will definitely not work as long as Otto Rehhagel, who coached till 74, or Giovanni Trapattoni, who is now linked to FC Sydney at 75. Never.

"Singapore will be the last job in my career."