Otto Pfister: The Grand Old Man of African Football

Michael Kwambo@@michaelkwamboCorrespondent IFebruary 8, 2008

For 36 years, African Cup of Nations glory has eluded coach Otto Pfister.

Cameroon’s veteran coach is looking at Ghana 2008 to fulfill his ambitions.

The authoritative and commanding German coach has been seeking glory in Africa since 1972. But for all this period, the coach has been unable to lift the Nations Cup, despite handling over eight top national teams across the continent.

Pfister was in the same league of Buckhard Pape and Bernhard Zgoll, the first group of German coaches to land Africa in the early '70s through a German exchange program that saw them seconded to various African countries.

Surprisingly, Pfister’s first landing in Africa was in Rwanda, where he arrived in June 1972 and found no football structure in the tiny African nation.

“I landed in Africa for the first time in 1972 and that was Rwanda. I found there was nothing there as far as football was concerned. The football culture was not there. I stayed there for four years until 1976 when I left. But even by the time I was leaving, nothing much had been achieved.”

Pfister attributed his failure to achieve much for Rwanda on instability and lack of structures.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

By then, Rwanda was experiencing some political upheavals and ethnic animosity.

Football could not flourish.

“I wish I went to Rwanda under the current situation. I’m sure I would have achieved a lot,” Pfister said in reference to Rwanda’s obsession of football under the leadership of President Paul Kagame.

When he left Rwanda, Pfister went to Burkina Faso, then called Upper Volta.

Between 1976 and 1978, Pfister changed the face of football in Burkina Faso.

The establishment in Burkina welcomed the German coach and because of the natural interest in football and the Government’s commitment, Burkina qualified for their first ever Nation's Cup finals in 1978 in Ghana.

“We played some good football in Ghana and although we did not reach the semi-finals, we returned to Ouagadougou with respect,” the German coach said.

It was the success with the Burkina team that opened the way for Pfister to traverse Africa, the Middle East, and Asia in the past 36 years since his first landing in Africa.

During this period, Pfister has coached in the Congo (DRC), Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Morocco, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Sudan, Togo, Ghana twice and, now Cameroon.

Three months ago, the Cameroon football Federation (FECAFOOT) contracted Pfister to guide the Indomitable Lions in the 26th Edition of the Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana.

Despite the short notice, the 72-year-old veteran took up the challenge.

He had a slippery start when Egypt pelted the Lions 4-2 in their opening match of the tournament in Kumasi last week.

But the Lions, in their supreme characteristics, recovered quickly to maul Zambia 5-1 and Sudan 3-0 to reach the quarter finals where they beat Tunisia 3-2.

“I have a strong side to win the cup and our chances are 100 percent intact. We slipped against Egypt. But you saw how we recovered to reach the last eight. That confirms that we are a championship side,” Pfister boasted in Tamale during an interview with the Daily Nation before last night’s semi-final against the hosts.

“However, I would like to make it clear that we are not underrating any side, because all the remaining teams have the capacity to win the cup. But we are one of the front-runners, no doubt about it. You can write that if you want,” he roared in his intimidating voice ahead of last night’s decisive game.

Pfister, who rarely sits during the action, commands from the technical area and roars salvos to the fourth official and his players until he gets what he wants.

Pfister, born in Colgone, said he played for FC Cologne “but my obsession was handball and some basketball. Football came later in my life. I didn’t even play for the German national team,” he confessed.

The German tactician, with his strong emphasis on discipline, said his biggest problem in Africa is with the football administrators.

“I have been in Africa for 32 years and my biggest problem has been with the administrators. Majority of them have no idea about football and that is why I have ran into problems with them.”

Pfister, hired by Togo for the World Cup in 2006, was involved in a stand-off with the Togo FA over players’ dues during the World Cup.

He sided with players until FIFA settled all their dues before they accepted to honor their matches.

“That is the language some them understand. They do not do things in the right way. That is what happened in Germany,’’ he revealed.

He said North and West Africa play different football while eastern and southern zones have a different approach.

“For West Africa, football is life and death and they have the rhythm and talent all round. This is not the case with East central and southern part of Africa where the game is slow and the approach lukewarm,” he noted.

However, he praised Sudan for having a strong league and possibly the best in Africa.

“I was with El Merreikh of Sudan for two years and really enjoyed working in Sudan where the clubs have money and people honour their obligations,” he said in reference to his two year stint with the Sudan giant club when they reached the CAF Cup final last year.

Pfister has been to four Nations Cup finals, first with Burkina Faso (1978), Zaire (1988),  Ghana (1992), and now with Cameroon.

His biggest success in Africa was at Zamalek of Egypt (1999-2002) when the club won the Egyptian league, knock-out cup, African Super Cup, and African Cup Winners’ Cup in those four years.

Pfister’s coaching profile:

1972 -76: Arrives in Kigali, Rwanda
1976-78: Coached Upper Volta (Burkina Faso) and took them to the finals of CAN in Ghana ‘78
1978-81: Coached Senegal National team
1982-85: Coached Cote d’Ivoire’s National Team                                              1986-90: Coached Zaire’s Leopards
1992-95: Coached Ghana Black Stars, taking the Black starlets to World Cup in Mexico
1996-97: Coached Bangladesh National Team
1997-98: Coached Saudia Arabian National Team taking them to a World Cup
1999-2002: Coached Zamalek of Egypt and won five trophies with team
2003: Coached Sfax of Tunisia and won the league cup
2004: Coached Lebanon national team
2006: Coached Togo National Team at the World Cup
2007: Coached El Merreikh of Sudan and took them to the final of CAF Cup
2008: Coaching Cameroon team for CAN 2008