The Belgian coach Hugo Broos may not have been first choice to lead Cameroon, but he’s wasted no time in making his mark on the team.
World Soccer: You were appointed coach of Cameroon in March. How has the journey been so far?
Hugo Broos: There was a lot of work to do because we had to renew the team. We needed young players. The last months I watched players all around Europe. I think we changed a lot. The mentality has changed and we have enjoyed good results. We qualified for the African Cup of Nations, and the qualifiers for the World Cup in Russia began two months ago. We drew twice: a very good draw in Algeria and a poor draw against Zambia. But, OK, that can happen. I am happy with what has happened in the last eight months.
Initially you were not on the shortlist of the Cameroon football federation, FECAFOOT. Did that bother you?
No, but a lot of people did seem bothered. Why should it bother me? Choices were made and I’m now the coach of Cameroon. I applied last December and I heard nothing back until I suddenly got a phone call and they said: “You’re the leading candidate and nine chances out of 10 you will be appointed.” Three days later I got a message: “You will be the new national coach of Cameroon.” It doesn’t matter that I was not appointed unanimously. If you are appointed unanimously tomorrow and the results are disappointing, it’s game over still. It doesn’t
make a difference. My first press conference was unbelievable. I had never experienced that in my career. Everyone was negative! There was no confidence, there was nothing. I had to start from zero. Now it is much better, but the fact I was not on the shortlist was a problem for many people.
Why was there so much negativity around the Cameroon national team when you arrived?
First of all, there are three people who choose the coach: the president, the president of the football federation and the minister of sport. They decide. It is a very important choice and everyone is involved – the press, the people in the street. Everyone likes to talk about the trainer. [For] two or three months the whole country is talking about who will be the coach. There were some French candidates because of the history between France and Cameroon. There was a Cameroonian coach and a Serb coach. Everyone had his favourite. I wasn’t mentioned, so I couldn’t be someone’s favourite. I think that was the real problem. The moment I was chosen, all those other people who had their favourites became negative. They said: “This is not a good coach; he hasn’t even coached a national team.”
Were you surprised that football is a matter of national and political importance?
Yes. I had known because I had asked around about Cameroon. Everyone had told me that there is one thing that is important in Cameroon – and that’s football. Les Lions Indomptables are really very important; more than I could ever imagine.
What were your first days in Cameroon like?
After the press conference I went with my assistant, who is also from Belgium, to the hotel. We said: “Wow! What are we going to do now?”
I said immediately to my assistant: “Look, we will do what we think we have to do. If it turns for the worse, then maybe in three, four months we will already be home again, but if we can change the situation, then we can stay for the long run.” So we worked and we worked and we worked, from the first day. Maybe it’s a little detail, but the day after the press conference there was a journalist who came to the hotel and he saw me working on my laptop and he asked: “What are you doing?” And I replied:”I am working for the team.” So he took some pictures and the next day it was in the paper with the headline: Broos is already working. I had to change the perception about me, and I have succeeded I think.
What is the biggest change you think you have brought to the national team set-up?
There is a big change in mentality. To say it is a bit undignified, but I have cleaned up the group. The way the players interact now is different, during dinner, etc. It wasn’t bad in the past, but there were different cliques. There was no collective spirit. The younger players feel that I give them chances. That wasn’t the case either in the past. [Carlos] Kameni and other senior players were called “le cadre”. What is “cadre?” You have to win. It is often not accepted that you kick Kameni and co out, but it was necessary. It was necessary. I want a different kind of football. So far I haven’t succeeded therein, but I do envisage a different kind of football.
How have you changed things?
Football has changed. You no longer require the big, forceful players who blow away everyone. The group’s mentality has changed. The group has also become younger. The match against Zambia was a disaster, but the team wants to attack. In the past that wasn’t so much the case. In the past the players came, because they had to. They were afraid to refuse because the whole of Cameroon would be on their back. They were not there with their whole heart. That’s something that has changed. The players are really happy to be with the national team. I got some discipline in the team. I took some decisions in the beginning. A player who came one day too late and I said: “Ok, go home. You had to be here yesterday and you arrive today.” Everyone was surprised; what is that coach doing? Players were starting to think about it; there will be discipline and organization. If there is no organization, there will be chaos.
You qualified for the African Cup of Nations finals fairly easily…
It was the friendly match against France that was key. I thought, well it is a friendly and it is not that important, but Cameroonians and the minister of sport really wanted to win. Everywhere I went I heard “we have to beat France”. It was important. We didn’t beat them, but everyone was delighted with the performance. That game was a boost of confidence. Afterwards the qualifiers for the African Cup of Nations became easier.
Your opening match in Gabon is against Burkina Faso…
Yes, but that is one of the great difficulties at the African Cup of Nations, and in Africa at large, about 80 per cent of the teams can go toe to toe. It’s difficult. Most teams can match each other. The remaining 20 per cent are pushovers. But go and play Burkina Faso, go play Guinea-Bissau. I have watched their matches. It’s not a matter of them rolling over. There are just a few teams in Africa of which you can outright say that you will win.
You play the hosts, Gabon, and will meet Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang, one of the best strikers in the world. Does that game have extra spice?
On paper yes, but it doesn’t imply that we will blow away Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau. Gabon are the hosts, that is always more complicated. In theory, it could be a match with both teams qualified. It may also decide who finishes top of the group, even though I find that less important.
Why are former captain Stephane M’bia and goalkeeper Carlos Kameni not in your plans?
When I became coach of Cameroon it was pointed out to me that the team was a little bit too old. When I made my first selection, 30 per cent of the 25 players were 30 years old or more. So if you have to play the CAN, ok, you can do it with those players, but when you have to go to Russia – they are too old; your team becomes too old. You have to select some young players. It is a pity for Stephane because he was someone who was important for Cameroon, but I made that choice and for the moment I think I made a good choice.
Can you bring back Liverpool’s Joel Matip?
I don’t know if he really doesn’t want to return for Cameroon. I don’t know. I have tried to contact him, but I am not succeeding. He has to tell me: yes or no. That is a bit frustrating. If he doesn’t want to return we no longer have to consider him. But in Cameroon it is as if I don’t want to select Matip. If there is one person who wants Matip to return to the squad, it’s me. I am still trying. If he wants to return, he will be a certainty in Gabon.
What would constitute a successful Nations Cup for Cameroon?
I think if we can reach the quarter-finals, or maybe semi-finals, we have to be very, very happy.
Could you possibly win it?
Everyone can win it. Before Euro 2016 in France
I would have said that Wales wouldn’t defeat Belgium, but they did. You have to always be at your best level, never have a bad day – because when you have a bad day it can be catastrophic.
Winning in Gabon would be a great way of preparing for the 2019 African Nations Cup, which Cameroon will host…
Cameroon wants to have a great team for that tournament, but I have to win this CAN and qualify us for Russia. I would be happy if tomorrow the federation president tells me: “Coach, ok, try to build a new team for 2019.” But he doesn’t. I have no problem with [it], but there is no doubt that the 2019 Cup of Nations is maybe twice as important as the one now in January in Gabon for Cameroon.
Who are the favourites to win this African Cup of Nations?
For me, there are two teams who will be favourites. Algeria is a very good team, with players playing all over Europe in good teams. They are used to playing at a high level. This is a bit of a problem in Cameroon. We have players who are not playing – they are on the bench or not even on the team sheet at their clubs. Ivory Coast has a team that has been together for a number of years. They have brought in some young players.
In the last decade, Cameroon have had 10 different coaches. Is that one of the reasons why there is no singular vision?
No, I have already often said here that you can compare Cameroon with Belgium in the sense that both countries had a very successful era, but that they were not ready to provide and produce the next generation. In Belgium, it took a decade. Cameroon also had a brilliant generation, but afterwards Cameroon plunged into a deep hole. There was no FA administration and policy for the past four years. There was no FA in Cameroon! A committee governed football for four years. It was just pure guesswork. Now we can fall back on a good organization to achieve good performances.
Don’t you miss having a player of the calibre of Samuel Eto’o?
Cameroon always had one big player in the past: Roger Milla, Eto’o, Geremi. At the moment we don’t have that kind of player in our team, so we need a team performance. We can’t wait at any given moment for a flash of a player because we don’t have those players.
In the long term, what style of play do you want to implement in the team?
A style that wins games. We have to make Cameroon a team again that plays modern football. The players know that. They all play in Europe. They know how to play. We want to create a coherent collective with offensive urges so that we can win the matches with good football.
Prior to joining Cameroon, you struggled to find a job in Belgium. How come?
I have been asked that question umpteen times and I don’t have an answer. It may just be a matter of…I am 64. It is not normal that I couldn’t get a job in Belgium considering my career, my CV and what I won as a coach. I was a bit frustrated about that in the beginning, but you can’t change that. They want you or they don’t. If they don’t want me in Belgium, I look for work abroad.
Is coaching Cameroon the crowning achievement of your career?
No, because I am ambitious and it is nice to do it, but I’d like to win something with Cameroon. Perhaps then I will perhaps say this was the highlight of my career. Let’s talk in a few years and see.
Interview by Samindra Kunti