A New Broom
Hugo Broos on how he made Cameroon side derided as the worst in a generation into champions
It was not as if Hugo Broos had been unsuccessful during his coaching career. He’d won Belgian league titles with Club Brugge, twice, and Anderlecht and he had four times been voted the country’s manager of the year. But he had appeared to be winding down, tapering off with short-lived spells in the United Arab Emirates and Algeria before taking the job that may define his life’s work. When Broos was appointed Cameroon manager in February 2016, at the age of 63, the outrage in an already despondent local football scene was palpable. He had not been among the original contenders for the position, had never been directly involved with international football before and had evidently been finding work hard to come by. Yet Broos, his eyes clear and mind resolved to ignore the distractions that had encumbered many of his predecessors, set to work and achieved something remarkable. Cameroon’s 2017 Africa Cup of Nations victory in Gabon was a triumph of teamwork and lucid, decisive management.
To the outsider it seemed, when you took the Cameroon job, as if your prospects were dim. You had never managed an international team before, had not even been on the original shortlist for the job – and were being asked to improve a side whose last World Cup and Cup of Nations campaigns had been catastrophic…
When I arrived in Cameroon everything was negative, certainly towards me as a coach. As you say, I hadn’t had a national team job – although I’d managed two clubs in Algeria. At my first press conference a journalist asked me: “You have three games now, two against South Africa and one against Mauritania, what will happen if you lose those games?” I answered: “Yes, but what if I win them?”
I picked my first squad, and one of the newspapers wrote that it was a “bunch of sick men”. That was the atmosphere: negative, negative, negative, negative. So I knew that I had a lot of work to do.
The first thing I did was change a lot of the players and that was a big scandal: “The coach has put these players out, how is it possible?” Before the Cup of Nations they couldn’t believe I had put Nicolas Nkoulou [who came on in the first half of the final and scored the equaliser] on the bench. “Do you know which player he is?” the media would ask me. Yes, OK, but I’m putting him on the bench. We started searching for new players, younger players, looking around Europe to see where Cameroonian guys were playing. If they were good enough, they came with us. Game by game the average age went down and now it’s a very young team.
African national teams often suffer for the number of external voices that try to involve themselves in a coach’s work. The changes you made sound simple enough but, in the circumstances, how did you push them through?
A few months ago someone came up to me and said: “Coach, you’re a strange man.” I said “Yeah, why?” He said: “If someone comes and proposes something, you always say, ‘Yes, yes,’ but you never do it.” Let’s be clear, I don’t have a problem with someone coming up to me and saying, “Coach, this is a good player.” Maybe I haven’t seen it or don’t know it. But then, if I go and see the player, maybe he’s not good enough – and that’s the thing. They now know what, whatever they tell me, in the end I’m the one who decides.
That was a problem at the beginning because everyone was used to going up to the coach and saying “[pick] this one, this one”. There were agents who would phone the coach and try to pick the team – and maybe they’d pay to put their players in the team, I don’t know. But when I came in, perhaps they realised from the beginning that this wouldn’t be possible.
Positive results make it easier for people to keep quiet…
Yes, when you make all these changes you need results. OK, I got them, but you need a little luck. You can make some decisions, lose two or three times, and then you’re dead. But I chose to take the young players and they are hungry, they want to win, whatever we are doing. When you say to them, “Now you need to rest for three days,” they’ll rest for three days. You tell that to an experienced player and no, they don’t do it. The work is a little bit easier than with big players, maybe. So the results have come and many journalists come up to me now saying, “Coach, at the beginning we were writing, ‘What did he do? He can’t do that!’” But now they understand why I did it, again and again. If the results weren’t there, we wouldn’t be talking here now and I would already be back in Belgium.
Christian Bassogog, the Denmark-based winger who was named player of the tournament at the Cup of Nations, is probably the most obvious example of a young player you’ve brought in from relative obscurity. What was the process in calling him up?
If you’d have asked me five months ago, “You know Bassogog?” I’d have said, “Who?” I just didn’t know him. But again, like I said, we were changing the team and looking for players. It’s easy now: you can go on the internet, search for Cameroonian players and find a list from Azerbaijan to I-don’t-know-where. They’re playing everywhere. But what is the quality? What is the level? I don’t necessarily want to go to Azerbaijan and then ask myself, after 10 minutes, what I’m doing there. So you need to look everywhere and, if you have friends or contacts, phone them to get an idea.
In Bassogog’s case, I had some friends – former players of mine – in Denmark, so I called them: “I see there’s this guy, Bassogog, what kind of player is he?” “Ah, coach, he’s a young player, very good with the ball.” I said, “OK, we’re coming to see.” So in September my assistant went over to watch him; after the game he phoned me and said, “Coach, I think you need to see him too, we have a good player here.” I went to watch him, saw his qualities and decided that he had to be with us for the next game.
He joined us for the World Cup qualifier against Zambia in November. I put him on for the last half-hour, saw what he did and thought, “Right, we’ve found him.” Now he is getting plenty of chances and everyone can see what a good player he is.
It’s a good example of proactivity being rewarded. There was a sense that the same old names were being allowed to repeat the same old failures when before you took over…
As I said, the number of Cameroonian players around the world is unbelievable. But their level will vary so you have to find out exactly what they’re like. When I’m in Belgium, it’s usually two or three hours’ travel at the most to watch a game in Europe; you have to look, you have to see, and that’s something they didn’t do before. It was always the same players, playing for 20 games without much changing. In fact, that was one of the ideas when I signed my contract – the chairman of the federation told me to bring in young players because we had an old team. In the first selection I made, because there hadn’t been much time to look, 30% of the group were 30 or above. 30%! So I started looking – and I must say, the chairman knows everything about Cameroonian football and is aware of every player.
At the start of the Cup of Nations, though, the talk was more about those who were not in your squad than those who were. Liverpool’s Joël Matip was among seven named in your preliminary squad to reject the call, with some – such as Lille’s Ibrahim Amadou, who has been called up to the France Under-19 squad – refusing to commit to Cameroon. Will your success change their minds?
I hope so, because the atmosphere around the team is now very positive and that was a factor in their not being here before, so maybe they will now come. Hopefully they will phone me and say ,“OK coach, we see something has changed now so I’m available if you want.” But it’s not me who will make that call. That’s finished. I did it for four months, several times, calling guys like Amadou and Zambo [André-Frank Zambo Anguissa of Marseille]. I can’t be on my knees saying, “Please, please, do you want to come?” No, I won’t do that, I’ve had enough. I phoned them enough, I asked them enough to come, and they weren’t there – even when we put them under pressure. So now it’s down to them.
Have any of your players tried to exert some influence on the stay-aways?
For sure. My captain, Benjamin Moukandjo, called Amadou when I made the pre-selection. “Come on, come on,” he told him, but he wouldn’t come. But a lot of the guys who play in France have two nationalities and they are hoping for the French team. I can understand that a little bit, but they have to see the reality. When you see the French team, you have to be very good to be there. Zambo and Amadou are midfielders and when you see the options France have … but they hope, they hope, they hope. And I say to them that I understand they are dreaming of the France national team, because there is a little bit of a difference between Cameroon and France but please be a realist. See which players are there. It’s nearly impossible that tomorrow they will say, “This one and this one are out, now we’ll take Amadou and Zambo.” So I hope they will understand that and, in a few weeks, phone me to say they will take the risk and join us.
And what about Matip? He was clear about his retirement from the national team before the tournament but you persevered, without success, until the last…
I hope he will change his mind, but I don’t think he will. I think it comes down to what happened last time. They called him up and he played in all the qualifying games for the 2015 Cup of Nations, but then the tournament started and they put him out of the team. Then there were organisational problems too, and he said no. I went to talk with him last February when he was with Schalke, because they told me he was unhappy and would not come. That was his answer to me from the first moment, too. I said, “I only ask you to come once, and if it’s not good then just tell me things haven’t changed and I won’t ask you again, it’s fine.” But he never came, and it’s a pity because he’s a very good player.
You mentioned organisation there; it seems that, with players at bigger clubs wrapped so tightly in cotton wool, the stakes are slightly higher these days if something goes amiss?
In Africa it’s impossible to change everything. There is always a little problem somewhere. My second game was in South Africa and it was terrible. We went to the airport in Yaoundé and everything was arranged, the luggage was there and we were ready to go. The plane was 50 minutes late and you think, “OK, good, only 50 minutes,” but we boarded it and nobody was there. I said, “Where is everyone?” and they told me, “Eh, coach, there’s a problem”. It was a private plane for us, the players, the federation and a few journalists. It could seat nearly 100 people and we had booked it for 60. But on the day nearly 80 people turned up, and the airline asked who would pay for the extra 20. The ministry of sport said it wasn’t for them, the federation said they weren’t paying either, so we had to discuss it for two hours before departing – two hours sitting there in the plane without going anywhere. This kind of thing isn’t happening to us anymore but I was very angry that day. If you’re carrying on like this, it’s impossible. I’ve changed a lot since then, but it’s difficult.
That’s probably not the kind of pressure you were used to in your club career. Was it always an ambition to take a national team position after almost 30 years of coaching?
Yes, I always hoped that would happen one day. I’m at the end of my career now, almost 65, and this is another way of working. When you’re at a club there’s stress every day – this player isn’t happy, this happened, you lost last week, you have to win this… so every day there are problems, and you’re training all the time and have to motivate your players. It’s very stressful, so at my age maybe it’s better to have a job like this that’s generally a little calmer.
I have a deal with my wife that I’ll go on until I’m 66, next year, and then I’m finished. I said it already before – that I’d stop when I was 60 – but this time I will do it. I turned professional as a player when I was 19 and since then I’ve always been a footballer or a coach. It’s very difficult, when you feel good as I do now, to stop – I’m not tired, and I want to go on. But I don’t want to die on the bench so I agreed with my wife that, when my contract finishes next February, that will be it. With what we’ve achieved here, maybe it will be an appropriate moment to stop.
As a player with Anderlecht you worked under the late, much-travelled Tomislav Ivić. Was he among the coaches who have influenced your career?
There are some who I took things from, such as Raymond Goethals [who preceded Ivić at Anderlecht]. If he is coaching you, then you can only learn. In my opinion Ivić was the first coach to work in the modern way. Before he came in, training involved running in the woods. With Ivić we never ran – everything was on the field with the ball. At the time it was, “Wow! We don’t have to run in the woods but we’re still in good condition!” So that’s one example. There are coaches from whom you’ll take bits but in my case there isn’t a particular guy where you’ll say “This is the one.”
To finish, let’s go back to your Cameroon team’s success in Gabon. As well as a triumph for your methods, it felt like one of momentum – especially as you were very close to going out in the group stage…
The confidence certainly played a part. When you’re in the quarter-final, then the semi-final, teams grow – and it wasn’t the same team anymore that played Burkina Faso on January 14. The results make that – everyone becomes confident and believes in himself more than they did a month before. It’s normal, and that’s the first thing.
The second thing is the opponent. If we’d played against Senegal [in the quarter-finals, when Cameroon won on penalties] like we did against Ghana in the semis [when Cameroon attacked their opponents from the start and eventually won 2-0] we’d never win. When you face players like Keita Baldé and Sadio Mané, they can kill you. So you have to look at how the opponent is playing and which strategy you need to be successful in a particular game. Every coach has his strategy and afterwards you can be saying, “Shit, I should have done this or this.” You just don’t know, but you go with what you believe is best. And in every game, I think we took the best strategy and it helped us believe more in ourselves and take our chances.
That was not the case in the beginning, even against Burkina Faso. We knew what we had with the players, but we had to see what would happen on the pitch – were they going to do it? Game by game we saw that, yes, we could go further with this team – and maybe, if we were a little bit lucky, very far in this tournament. And we are now where we dreamed we’d be.