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From bullets in Baghdad to Belarus

World Cup qualifier, Group Six, Belarus v England
Venue: Dinamo Stadium, Minsk Date: Wed 15 October Kick-off: 1930 BST Coverage: Setanta TV, BBC Radio 5 Live & text commentary BBC Sport website

Belarus coach Bernd Stange

By Andrew McKenzie

A number of emotions will be running through Bernd Stange when his Belarus side host Fabio Capello's England in Minsk on Wednesday.

You can bet your life that fear will not be one of them.

England may have found their scoring touch under Fabio Capello but it will take more than nine goals in two games to put the frighteners on 60-year-old Stange.

Brought up in East Germany during the height of the Cold War, Stange was sacked by Hertha Berlin over accusations of spying on his players for the secret police and put himself in the line of fire during his time as national coach of Iraq.

"My car was shot at," he told BBC Sport. "I had death threats because there was a picture in the newspaper of me with the British foreign minister Jack Straw and 5,000 footballs that he had given us.

"A photo of me with the mortal enemy! After that I had to leave the country."

"I do like challenges but Liverpool, Manchester United and Bayern Munich didn't call me to take their clubs

Bernd Stange

It was not the first time that a photo of Stange had landed him in trouble.

He consulted football's world governing body, Fifa, and his own foreign office before taking the Iraq job, but when a picture of the smiling coach in front of a portrait of Saddam Hussein appeared in newspapers he became the victim of a tabloid hate campaign back in Germany.

Even six years on, any questions about the incident bring out a different side of the otherwise unflappable Stange.

After some choice words about the photographer in question, he adds: "It was not easy but it was a good schooling for life.

"The photographer told me to keep smiling and I didn't see that behind my back was a picture of Saddam Hussein. He made thousands of dollars from the picture. Now when someone asks for a photo the first thing I do is look behind me."

After a year out of work, Stange had decided to take the Iraq job late in 2002, despite escalating threats of an invasion of the country led by United States and British forces.

He was forced to flee when the conflict began but returned after the fall of Saddam.

Bernd Stange
Stange was criticised back in Germany for taking the Iraq job

However, on his arrival back in Baghdad he found their equipment supplies had been ransacked, the national stadium damaged and the pitch being used for the US army to park their tanks.

They were unable to play home games but Stange, despite going without pay for several months, arranged for the players to tour Germany, Korea, Japan and Australia and England.

The national team made it into the top 50 in the world and under Stange they qualified for the Asian Cup and the Olympics.

He received an award from Fifa president Sepp Blatter for his work in helping the rebuilding process in Iraq.

But Stange's life was increasingly in danger and his driver was shot after dropping him off at his hotel.

The worries deepened after Stange and his squad were invited to a reception at Westminster and his picture with British minister Jack Straw appeared on the front pages of newspapers in Iraq.

It proved to be the final straw. Two months before he was scheduled to take the side to the Olympics it became clear that he would have to leave.

His Iraqi assistant took over but Stange kept in close touch as the side reached the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup and then the Olympic semi-finals in Athens.

Stange was out of work but his reputation had been restored back home.

The man accused of being a puppy dog to a dictator was now painted as a hero who had taken a stand against the war in the name of the beautiful game.

"Everything changed after I got the award from Sepp Blatter in 2004," he said. "I did the job, I tried to educate the young people to do a good job on the pitch and not for political reasons."

His next mission took him to Cypriot strugglers Apollon Limassol.

BERND STANGE FACTBOX
Born in East Germany in 1948
Playing career ended by injury, he went into coaching with FC Carl Zeiss Jena
Coached East Germany national side in 1980s
Sacked by Hertha Berlin in 1992 over allegations he worked for the Stasi
Worked for clubs in Ukraine and Australia before brief spell as Oman national coach in 2001

He arrived in time to stave off the threat of relegation and a year later they were crowned champions after going through the league season unbeaten.

Last year Stange traded Cyprus for Belarus, swapping the sunshine coast for a country recently described by the US State Department as "Europe's only remaining outpost of tyranny" and with a president (Alexander Lukashenko) sometimes labelled the continent's "last dictator".

It is perhaps not such a surprising choice for a coach who once said: "I have worked for communist regimes, capitalists, for a sultanate and a dictator, but my work is always the same. It's only ever about one thing - putting the ball in the net."

He laughs off suggestions he gets a kick out of the jobs other coaches would not take.

"I do like challenges but Liverpool, Manchester United and Bayern Munich didn't call me to take their clubs. That's why," said Stange.

"I have to work and I like to work and that's why I chose what was available at the time.

"I was coaching in Cyprus but I was looking for a high-profile opportunity. There are not so many opportunities worldwide to get such a national team with such good players and that is why I was happy to get this chance.

"I live in Minsk. You wouldn't believe it - it's one of the cleanest cities I have ever seen in my life and I've seen many cities. It's a good lifestyle and I like it here. I like my job."

606: DEBATE

After a less than auspicious start, Belarus have recorded some notable results under Stange, beating the Netherlands in a Euro 2008 qualifying tie and earning draws with Argentina and Germany.

In their opening World Cup qualifiers they lost 1-0 to a debatable injury-time goal in Ukraine before beating Andorra 3-1 away.

"We are happy with the progress we have made over the last 12 months," he said. "It's very exciting. There has been big progress.

"There are good players and good coaches, and there is a chance for a bright future. Not now but in 6-10 years. Not now, we are not ready yet."

His young side may be yet to blossom but that will not stop Stange from allowing them to dream of a prize scalp in Minsk, even if they have to do without their injured star player Alexander Hleb.

"I'm always a big optimist as a coach," he said. "We have a very young team but we will do everything. The stadium will be full, we will try to do all that we can do.

"These are young boys. Should we play to finish third or fourth in the group? That is not our goal. Our goal is to win, especially in Minsk.

"With 40,000 fans we want to make a party. For the first time in 20 years we have a capacity crowd.

"It will be very difficult against a selection of the best players in the world, but we are not afraid."



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see also
Country profile: Belarus
03 Jul 08 |  Country profiles
World Cup 2010 qualifying
01 Dec 09 |  Football
Pick your England XI
31 Aug 07 |  Internationals
Terry & Cole out of Belarus match
13 Oct 08 |  Internationals
What now for England's midfield?
13 Oct 08 |  Internationals
Gerrard reveals Capello demands
14 Oct 08 |  Internationals
Injured Hleb may not face England
10 Oct 08 |  Internationals
German puts Iraq back on the ball
17 Oct 03 |  Middle East
Profile: Europe's last dictator?
10 Sep 01 |  Europe
Iraq football coach dreams of peace
10 Mar 03 |  Europe
Croatia 1-4 England
10 Sep 08 |  Internationals


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