Interview: Q&A with Cameroon assistant coach Ibrahim Tanko
Cameroon assistant coach Ibrahim Tanko speaks exclusively GHANASOccernet.com about his coaching career and reflects on the Indomitable Lions shambolic World Cup campaign.
The former Dortmund and Freiburg also talks about the Black Stars coaching job and his personal aspirations.
GHANASoccernet: Thank you for welcoming us to your lovely home
Ibrahim Tanko: It is a pleasure to have you here
How has the transition been like for you, from being a player to moving into coaching?
Well, when I decided to stop playing, I wanted to remain in football. For me also, I always wanted to be on the pitch so I decided to take a coaching course, I didn’t want to be a manger sitting in the tribune and giving ideas, I wanted to be on the pitch and to also help the up and coming ones. It is not easy but this is a job I want to do and it’s a pleasure for me to also be a coach.
How do you compare your work as a coach to when you were a player?
It’s two different things, as a player you only have to go to training and play a game but as a coach you’ll have to organize everything before the game, after the game…always you have to organize and manage your players, your staff so it is two different things but I am feeling good as a coach as well.
Which of the two – being a player or a coach – would you consider a more difficult job?
It is clear that a coach is more difficult job than a player. As I said, a player will go to training and play matches, either it goes well or not anything will happen but as a coach you have all the pressure on you so you can’t afford to have a bad day.
Where did you start out as a coach after completing your course?
I started with SC Freiburg where I played for in the final stages of my professional career, I played for six years under coach Volke Finke who I am working with right now. I coached the U19 team and then one year later I assisted the first coach of the second team. From there, we moved to Japan with Volke Finke for two years coaching Urawa Red Diamonds and then after we came back to Germany to assist Solback in FC Cologne for one year. And then after that, we have this job in Cameroon. It started with Freiburg and now I am in Cameroon, it has not been an easy journey but I said it is my passion so I go through all these and I hope it takes me far.
You go wherever Volker Finke goes, what has accounted for this strong relationship between you and the German trainer?
Well, it started since I was playing in Dortmund. He decided to come and buy me from Dortmund and we had a lot of discussions from which I saw him as an honest man. I stopped playing [ay Freiburg] because of my injury so he advised me to go into coaching because he saw something in me that I will be a good coach in the near future. So after he also quit his job at Freiburg to take up this job in Japan, he took me with him and we have been working since. I think we love each other because during my playing days he was like a father to me and he likes my character and all that.
Will there come a day when you decide to move from under his wings to make your own name in coaching?
Volker is 67 now and I don’t think he will continue after maybe one or two years so it will only be normal for me to go elsewhere and find my own way. This is the same with Low and Klinsmann. When Klinsmann left, Low took over and we all saw his success. The only thing is that I have to learn a lot from him because he is one of the best coaches in the world.
How has football changed from your time till now?
Football is going to keep changing always because there is a lot of money in it and I don’t know what will happen in 10 years time. When we were playing and it has not been too long since I stopped playing but the money now was not close to what was there before. When we were playing with the national team, there was nothing like these big bonuses or appearance fees even though we didn’t qualify for the World Cup. Sometimes, you came with your own flight to play for the national team but now things are different and I think we have to give the players who are playing now the benefit of the doubt because they also came into this environment where football has changed. So it is difficult now for the players to accept what were accepting and I think it’s normal because the game keeps changing.
Is also becoming more difficult to be a footballer?
Of course, they don’t have more space than before on the pitch and always you have to train even harder and be very mindful of how you treat your body. You also realize that there are different specialization of coaches, not like before when you only had the coach and his assistant. You have about four, five coaches working with you all with the aim of improving performance on the field of play. It is more difficult and I think it’s going to be even more difficult in time to come.
Talk us through the experience of helping qualify Cameroon for the 2014 World Cup as you didn’t look likely at a point of making it to Brazil.
It is a very difficult job we took with Cameroon. When we started we didn’t have an FA and therefore we had this temporary administration thing. And then there was the conflict between the FA and the Sports Ministry. In terms of organization we go with the players because we didn’t have a solid backing from the FA due to their own problems but we managed to do it. All the players so we were doing a good job so they decided to commit themselves and help us go through the challenges. Cameroon had not qualified for the African Cup for two times so it was also very bad. But they believed we were the right guys to take them to the World Cup and thankfully we did so.
There was some level of belief that Cameroon would do well at the World Cup especially after the friendly against Germany, where did things go wrong?
A lot has happened and you also read a lot about the players wanted their monies and all that. Before we played against Germany, during our training camp in Austria, everything went well and then we played a good game against Germany and things were ok and people started believing Cameroon could be one of the best teams at the World Cup. But after the game against Germany, a lot of things happened. It came to a time the players didn’t want to train because they expected some money, which was not coming. I even remember in our last game in Yaoundé, we had to speak to the players for hours before they came out to play the game because of this money issue. After the game everyone went home and we were supposed to travel to Brazil five days before the start of the tournament but we eventually arrived three days before all because of this money problem. So it was very difficult for us the technical staff to organize or to prepare very well. Also in Brazil, a lot happened that it is better I don’t talk about it right now.
How painful was it for you sitting on the bench and watching a team so full of promise perform so poorly at the World Cup?
It was very painful because when I saw the guys, we had a very good team. Against Mexico we lost 1-0 in a game I think we could have gotten something out of. And then against Croatia, we all saw what Alex Song did and we lost the touch of the game and lost. And then against Brazil, we knew we were already out of the tournament so there was no motivation to play and we lost that one also. It was very painful because we had a very good team but all the problems destroyed everything and this is football, if you don’t prepare very well, you get what you deserve.
Ghana also had its fair share of problems at the World Cup, how did it make you feel as a Ghanaian hearing all the disturbing reports from the Black Stars camp?
As I said, these problems destroyed almost all the African teams at the World Cup. This is a very painful situation because when I saw the Ghana team, I don’t think we’ve ever had such a strong team and it was a good opportunity for Ghana to go very far. But again a lot of things happened which was not supposed to happen. I think one mistake of officials of African teams is that right from when we qualified, they knew the players will be entitled to some monies and this has been a long time. So why don’t we give them their due and wait until when the problem arises and is too late we try to solve it? By then it will be too late. When you qualify, you discuss with the players, everyone knows what he deserves so why don’t we just pay them and make sure the preparations go well with very minimal issues? So it is a very sad story for both Ghana and Cameroon but I think we have to learn a lot from this and continue. The painful thing is if we don’t learn from this experience and continue to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
I am sure you heard about the disciplinary issues of Sulley Muntari at the World Cup? You have played with him, what do you make of all the allegations made against him?
I don’t know if he did what he did because we heard a lot of stories. Some say he did it, others say he didn’t so I don’t really know what went on there. But if he did it, then it is very bad because I knew him from when he was a very young boy and never detected such a character in him. In football, you have these players on the pitch who appear very rough but when you speak to Sulley or you know him very well, you’ll realize he is not that kind of a person. I hope he didn’t do it but if he did then it is wrong and he needs to apologize.
Some also suggests that Sulley Muntari has done his bit for the Black Stars and it was time we let him go, do you think it’s a right call?
We need Sulley because of his qualities; we don’t need him because of his attitude towards the coach or other Ghanaians. I don’t know what went on but I think we need Sulley because of his qualities. If he is playing at his club and playing good, the coach has to decide whether he can work with him but for me I think he has the quality that the national team will need.
In other words if you have the chance to speak to coach Kwesi Appiah, you will advice him to reconsider his decision on Sulley Muntari?
Well, if I speak to Akwasi, I would first want to know what happened from his side and in the end he is the one to decide if he can work with the player. I can tell him my opinion but I cannot force him to bring Sulley back if he is not in his plans. So I think Akwasi has to know what he wants from the player, if he thinks he can help him then bring him back, if not, you have to let him go.
There is also a case against Kevin-Prince Boateng, you have lived in Europe for most parts of your life, how do you deal with such a character who is widely considered to be divisive and full of trouble?
As a coach it is always important to be tough from the beginning because all these players coming to the camp, are coming to test you to see how powerful you are so if you give them the chance, they will try to overcome you. Kevin is a good player but I don’t know why he didn’t come and play during the qualifiers, he only plays in the tournament. If the coach accepts that, then he has to know the other players are also watching. If he brings his physiotherapist, I think Sulley will also bring one, Essien will also bring one and you will have all these problems at the camp. Kevin is a big player but you also have other big players in the team so if you allow him to do what he wants, you have to allow the others also. So you have to put your foot down and make everyone follow your instructions. The coach has to set out his rules and make the players understand that they have to follow it. Otherwise there is no need having these players.
There are some who have also questioned the patriotism of some of the Black Stars players, do you get the same sense?
I don’t know what you mean by patriotism. If a player is playing for Ghana, he is patriotic enough. You can’t see a player on the pitch and say this one is not playing with his heart. I watched some of the games I didn’t see that. Maybe on the side, yes, but not on the field if play.
Some have raised issues about the mentality of African players as against players from say Europe and South America. Is that also a problem?
The European player knows he is going to play for the national team when he is called up and not for himself or the money. But here, our guys are sometimes in competition with who drives the best cars, wears the best clothes and all that. So even amongst the players, you can see some conflict within. If you look at the World Cup, you will realize that the South American teams in particular, from the first minute to the end fight together. But in Africa it is not the same. You will see that this player has a problem with that player and all that. We need to develop a strong mentality and attitude otherwise we will keep struggling at major tournaments.
Away from the World Cup, another qualifying campaign is set to begin. What is your situation like now with Cameroon?
We still have a one-year contract and we have already started making plans for the two game we have next month. The problem however is that we don’t have an FA and nobody to speak with so we have started making our plans and wait to see what will happen. The President of the nation has set up a committee who will interview all the stakeholders from the coach and everyone involved so I don’t know if at the end they will ask us to step aside or not but we have started preparing for the two games.
How important is it for you and Volker Finke to turn things around after the poor World Cup showing?
I think it is very important bit if things continue like this, I am afraid it will not go well because we need a clear program and try to follow it. Now we have started making plans but we don’t know what will happen next. But it is important for Cameroon to qualify for the African Cup since they have not been there for the past two editions and this is very bad for the country.
Many have also made the issue about the lack of trophies for the Black Stars despite World Cup qualifications and the production of very good players. Do you feel we are getting any closer to ending the trophy drought?
I have 100 percent confidence in this Ghana team because when I saw them at the World Cup, I said wow! I don’t know if we’ve had a strong team like this before. All these quarrels will not help us, If the FA or the Sports Ministry have to work together because we have the materials. I think this African Cup must be our own even though I would also love to win it with Cameroon but of course, this is the strongest Ghana team I have seen. So let’s put things together right, who knows, maybe Cameroon against Ghana in the finals.
And what about your ambition of coaching Ghana in future?
I am not waiting for a vacancy in Ghana coaching so I am trying to do my thing and try to coach everywhere I can so that when the time comes that the GFA or Ghanaians feel it is the right time for me to come and coach the national team, yes but I am not waiting for anything. I need to keep working to get all the experience I need. I had some good experience in Japan – I was the first Black coach in the Bundesliga – so if I had waited, all these things would have passed by. So I will continue to learn a lot from big coaches because in Germany we get to meet all the big coaches every three months to learn from them. So the FA and Ghanaians are the ones to decide if the time comes and there is any vacancy and I am also free, then why not? I mean I am a Ghanaian and I would love to coach my country.
You have seen at firsthand how Germany have been able to transform their football from the youth level and they are now World champions. How do we also get it right in Ghana?
I think it is very sad the youth national teams conquer the whole world but cannot do same at senior level, Ghana is going to continue to produce good players, I don’t have fears about that. Even for the Germans they struggled to get talents and they felt at a point that the foreigners are beginning to take over their football. So what they did was to open up the academy system. Every club in Germany has an academy to prepare the players so it helps. The other thing is that they have a structure that all the teams follow, I am sorry, we have a sports director at the FA and I think the guidance is supposed to come from him. He heads all the national teams, from the junior level to the senior level so why doesn’t he put some program that all the national team must follow. If he does that, I think it will take time but he will be successful, Germany tried that and it took them a lot of time but they are world champions. It is not a matter of five years, I think 10 years, 15 years. We need to do something, we need to revise our colts football I think now it is academy so we have to encourage them and try to help them train the young ones well and it will not be long for Ghana to become a power in world football.
There is also the problem of infrastructural deficit to develop these talents. Some say we can never beat the Europeans to infrastructure, so how do we compete against them?
We can also have the infrastructure because we are not so poor. It doesn’t take too much to get these facilities in place also. The monies coming in from FIFA and CAF must also be put in the right places. We need good pitches and training facilities to train the massive talents we have. Some of us even started on the street and made our way up to the top so imagine if there was better facilities in place. But also the most important things is training our coaches. Train them well and give them good conditions to work with the young ones because not every coach will get the chance to coach the Black Stars.
How disappointed are you that you never got the chance to play at the World Cup knowing you played in some of the qualifiers ahead of the 2006 World Cup?
I am not that disappointed because I stopped playing because of my injury, I remember playing the first four games [2006 World Cup qualifiers] but I had to stop because of my injury. I believe if not for that I would have gone to the World Cup but that is how God works. I didn’t go to the World Cup as a player but I got the chance to do so as a coach.
Which is your most memorable game for the Black Stars?
I think it is 1996 when we played the third place playoff in the African Cup against Zambia. That is the game I think I played very well. I was very young with the likes of Abedi Pele, Tony Yeboah, Odartey Lamptey and all these guys. But then I had a lot of injuries so I didn’t play much for the Black Stars but then when we started the qualifiers for the 2006 World Cup under [Mariano] Barreto, I remember during that time we didn’t have a place to even train and ended up doing our training on the premises of our hotel. We didn’t have jerseys and all these kits. I remember I was the one who first brought the Jako kits to Ghana and I shared it amongst my teammates. Then everyone was wearing his shirt to camp and I said no, and gave everyone the Jako so we feel more like a team. I think Dr. Kofi Amoah bought us Nike jerseys to play our game against South Africa. I never felt it was a problem helping out with the national team but rather and honour.
GSN: Thank you very much for speaking to us
IT: It was a pleasure speaking to you as well.