Ronny Mintjens, linguist, teacher, and professional football coach, needed to find a way to really see the world, something deeper than mere tourism. Leaving the comfort and familiarity of his own European life, Mintjens decided to pursue his love of professional sports and exotic cultures all at once. He began coaching football at clubs all across Africa. Beginning in southern and then moving on to eastern Africa, Mintjens soon realized that there was more to professional football than simply training and winning matches. Trying to find ways to make a true mark on the game, Mintjens travelled from one club to the next. Each club, from Mount Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti Plains to Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope, held its own surprises and boasted its own strengths and weaknesses. In the end, each had its own lessons on the intricate weaving of African culture and heritage. Leave your life behind and dive into the exotic world of African sports with this fascinating tale of an ambitious foreigner and his deep journey to understand football as a way of life in the African football club. In this relatively unknown part of the world, football is certainly more than a game.
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MORE THAN A GAME
By RONNY MINTJENS
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2012 Ronny Mintjens
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Nou Camp Stadium in Barcelona, Spain, October 30th
Sitting here in this most wonderful football stadium, the home of Barcelona Football Club, with more than one hundred thousand football lovers screaming around me, my thoughts start to drift. The excitement on the terraces simultaneously reflects and helps create the magic that is being weaved on the field, several rows below my comfortable seat. It doesn't matter that the evening is chilly, that the wind is picking up, and that there is a hint of rain in the air. What matters is that the atmosphere is magical. A hundred thousand people are together for an hour or two, and totally oblivious to what goes on in the world outside this concrete shell of a stadium. The city of Barcelona oozes a feel-good factor, wherever one goes, looks or listens. "Més que un club", 'More than a club', is written in large letters across the main stand of this football temple.
Barcelona Football Club is an institution where the people of Catalunya find their identity, where they all feel they belong, and from where they source the strength to express their relative independence from the central government in Madrid. Across the city, youngsters get together and engage in impromptu chanting of the famous "Barça, Barça" battle cry. Football has that sort of an effect on people, and on this late and rather damp autumn evening in the shadows of the Sagrada Familia, footballing perfection is near. What is being displayed on the field is poetry, pure poetry. Poetry against a green background, you could say. Just that around these parts, they call it 'tiki taka'.
FC Barcelona are making cold meat of Sevilla FC. They are leading 4-0 through goals by Argentina's superstar Lionel Messi and Spain's goal-poacher David Villa. By the end of the match, Brazilian defender Dani Alves has completed the rout. FC Sevilla are condemned to return to the south of the country with a 5-0 trashing, and to try to regroup for the return match in a couple of months' time. But there is much more to see than just the goals. Each move, each pass, each offensive combination and each defensive action is well rehearsed, calculated and efficient. This 'tiki taka' style of play is football at its very best, how it should be played and how it has conquered millions and millions of fans over the past century.
Sevilla FC don't play badly at all. It's just that Barcelona are in a class of their own. The style of play that they exhibit on the green carpet has won them plaudits from all over the world, and more and more expert voices have started to suggest that this could well be the greatest football team the world has ever seen. Teams from around the world try to imitate and emulate the Barça style of play, but of course it takes much more than a few talented players and a few afternoons on the training ground. Guided by my personal friend and colleague from my coaching days in Qatar, Josep 'Pep' Guardiola, they possess a near-perfect balance in the team, and the perfect blend of players, players who want to work for each other and who are all fighting for the same cause. The players are almost interchangeable, as they have been taught from a young age that there is one way forward, and they either buy into this way, or they go and try their luck elsewhere. In this club, nobody is indispensable, yet nobody can be taken out of the equation without upsetting the structure. The whole club, from the youngest junior to the most senior player, and from the tea-ladies to the President of the Board of Directors, permeates a particular culture, a style of play and a football philosophy that is simply irresistible.
The ideological and structural distance that separates FC Barcelona and Safari Sports Club, my own club in Tanzania on the East African coast, is tremendous, and can only be calculated in light years. And when I realize once more that my ambition is to achieve what Pep Guardiola is achieving, but that this simply cannot happen at Safari Sports Club because of the totally incompetent leadership, I make up my mind.
Pep Guardiola has not produced this FC Barcelona team all by himself. When he joined the club, he found a structure that had been developed over the years and that aimed at making FC Barcelona the greatest club in the world. In fact, he himself is a product of this structure. As a young apprentice, he was thrust into the Barça world, and he was taught the one way that this club believes in. When he returned years later as a coach, he found a philosophy that he had breathed his whole life, and he found the same passion and ambition that he had experienced as one of the club's most accomplished players and one of its distinguished former captains. The motor behind this ambition was the club's leadership. However, Pep must have felt that he could make a contribution towards this goal, and that is why he decided to become a part of the adventure. His influence is undeniable. He has taken the club to the zenith of two Champions' League victories, as well as three successive La Liga titles, a long list of La Liga records, and an unprecedented six-trophy haul in 2009. He has turned Barcelona into the champions of Spain, Europe and the world. Winning trophies has become a mere habit for FC Barcelona, and there are no signs that their gusto for more success is abating ...
I sigh in pure admiration. Sitting in the Nou Camp and watching this harmony between directors and technical staff being reflected on the field of play, I start to think about my future with Safari Sports Club, back home in Dar Es Salaam. What exactly happened there, and what are the lessons for the future. Where did I want to go with this club? And was it even possible to get to where I wanted to be?
The night is getting cooler and the final whistle approaches. The action in these final minutes on the field takes a backseat, and I start to reflect on the journey so far. What has led me to this seat in the Nou Camp, and what will the future bring? I see myself again as a small child in Flanders, Belgium. I see that child grow up and become a footballer, then a coach, in Belgium, in Swaziland and ultimately in Tanzania. What were my goals in the first place?
The answer to this question is relatively straight-forward, obvious you might say, as it hadn't changed since my first day with the club. I wanted to transform Safari Sports Club into the greatest club of Tanzania and even East Africa, a club against which all other clubs would measure themselves. Not just a club that wins a title here and a cup there. No, I wanted to convert Safari Sports Club into a standard-bearer that leads the way and that would become the first East African club to unearth and fully develop the incredible talents of African players. Yes, the same talents that the whole world has been talking about for many years, but that have never materialized in any significant achievements. I wanted first place.
I've always wanted to be the best at whatever I do. As a matter of habit, I just don't settle for silver medals. In my long list of favorite sayings, somewhere near the top, you will find that "a silver medal is the prize for the first person in the long line of losers". Does anyone even remember runners-up? Can anyone recall who won the silver and bronze medals when Usain Bolt ran to gold in world-record time in the 100 metres final at the 2008 Beijing Olympics? I rest my case. But we all remember where we were when 'the Lightning Bolt' wrote history, don't we? Failure is not something I like to identify with, not something I want to be associated with, and not something I would enjoy. But at the same time I realize that the only place where 'success' comes before 'work' is in the dictionary. This competitive edge that characterizes my philosophy is a result not only of the coaching that I received when growing up in Belgium, but also of the cultivated determination that my path in life has brought.
So, was it at all possible for me to succeed in that club and achieve my goals? The answer to this question was equally easy to guess. "No, it was not possible!" Not at this club. Not at Safari Sports Club. Not after all the trials and tribulations that I experienced with the leadership. Not after seeing that, besides myself, nobody in the club wanted to plan for the longer term or even knew where the club should be heading. Not after realising that all my efforts to turn Safari Sports Club into a self-reliant, respectable and respected club had been frustrated. After all these setbacks, there was only one answer to this particular question. With Safari Sports Club I was going absolutely nowhere, and it had become impossible to talk sense into the club leaders. Our visions were miles apart, and there simply didn't seem to be any common ground. Unfortunately for the club my good ideas, almost exclusively taken from my experience with European football and my friendships with football technicians who knew the ropes, were never adopted by the incompetent and selfish 'leaders'. My ambition to improve the club was in stark contrast with their intention to siphon as much money and other benefits as possible out of the club during their three years in office, after which they would simply disappear into the sunset, never to be heard of again. Accountability, you ask? Not for these guys. And the worst part is, all this happened at the expense of the club's members, the players and the technical staff, and most importantly, at the expense of the development of the club. I willingly leave the fans out of the equation—they merit a chapter in themselves.
Dear reader, be advised that a status quo doesn't interest me. Tomorrow I want to be better than today. I want to learn more, teach more, try more and achieve more. And I will always look for opportunities to do this. We all do, don't we? It is the reason why those 'leaders' decided to get involved in the club in the first place. However, their interest was not in improving the club. Their interest was limited to improving their own social and financial status—at least in the short term. The Chairman of the club believed that he was as powerful and important as the President of the country, when in fact he was just trying to get easy money out of a football club that he could not care less about. This get-rich-quick scheme was of course much more successful than having to wait until somebody decided to stay at his dilapidated guesthouse. The 'leaders' of Safari Sports Club didn't understand, or refused to understand, that they had been elected into office in order to serve the club, and not in order to plunder and rob the club. Between the honest and the corrupt way of making money, which one is easier and quicker?
So, I wanted to achieve my ambitions, and my thoughts in the Catalan capital confirmed that I wouldn't be able to do this at Safari Sports Club. After one full year of investing my energy, my time, my money and my experience, I needed to look for a change for the better. Surely there were better opportunities out there.
In Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania's commercial capital and largest city, that could only mean one thing. I decided in the Nou Camp in Barcelona that I would approach the rival team, Ndovu Football Club, and ask them if they would be interested in my services and experience. I knew that this would cause some controversy because of the fierce rivalry between the two clubs and their fans. For the unsuspecting reader, let me clarify that a switch between these two clubs can only be compared to a switch between Arsenal FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC, or between Glasgow Rangers and Celtic Glasgow. It's something one only does in desperate times and after very careful consideration and a lot of soul-searching. But it happens—and it happened to me. It was a risk that I was willing to take, in pursuit of my personal ambitions. I knew that I would disappoint thousands of fans of Safari Sports Club whom I had gotten to know very well and who respected me a lot for my contributions, my perseverance despite all the frustrations, and my forthright intention to improve the club. They realized very soon that an opportunity had slipped through their club's fingers, but they also knew that the blame rested with the club's 'leadership' and with nobody else. They were clever enough to understand that you can't stop an ambitious person in their tracks. These fans understood my decision, as they were well aware of the problems that the leaders were creating for me.
And for myself? I knew immediately that changing clubs was the best option. Well, it was the only option. The opportunities for me to contribute towards the development of a Tanzanian football club were, apparently, much greater at Ndovu Football Club, and I felt that I would personally be able to develop more as a coach. At least, this was my impression ... Only one way to find out, of course.
And what about the rivalry? Well, rivalry between two or more clubs is a good thing, because it forces both clubs to push themselves to their level best. Nobody likes to be second best. However, for me this rivalry doesn't go as far as to 'hate' the other team. Whether as a player or as a coach, I always say that I fear no team, but that I respect all teams. Rivalry needs to be put into perspective, and to me it doesn't really make sense when somebody says : "If you belong to Safari Sports Club, then you can never belong to Ndovu Football Club, and you should hate Ndovu Football Club". I do understand that many supporters have a life-long love and passion for their favorite football club. On the other hand, I also have friends who regularly update their Facebook status and become fans of the latest team to have won the UEFA Champions' League or the FIFA World Cup ...
In September 2012, when the Hillsborough disaster was being remembered in the United Kingdom, Sir Alex Ferguson wrote a special letter to all the fans and followers of Manchester United. The fans of Liverpool Football Club had just been exonerated of the events that led to the deaths of ninety-six football lovers on that fateful day, and Sir Alex Ferguson, whose team was to face Liverpool FC on that same weekend, asked his club's fans to show respect during the occasion. He wrote:
"Today is about thinking hard about what makes Manchester United the best club in the world. Our rivalry with Liverpool FC is based on a determination to come out on top—a wish to see us crowned the best against a team that held that honour for so long. It cannot and should never be based on personal hatred."
I could not have said this any better, and I thank Sir Alex for illustrating my point so clearly. There is no place for hatred in football, not even when you're a Dutchman celebrating a victory against Germany or when you're a Rangers or Celtic fan getting inebriated over last Sunday's Old Firm derby.
Support and fanaticism are great, even necessary, but not at the expense of someone's feelings towards other individuals. Many a bar and many a living room around the world light up when the match that is being broadcast splits the audience or even the family right through the middle. But two hours later, all that should remain is a bit of banter and a lot of bragging—nothing more.
For players and coaches though, the situation is slightly different from that of the fans—they are merely employees of the club, and barring a few exceptions, allegiance and loyalty have become a thing of the past. Can we blame them? Can we fault them for following their ambitions (and sometimes the money) and trying to make the most out of their short careers? Is that not what every straight-thinking person would do?
When I worked for Safari Sports Club I gave 100% of my energy to Safari Sports Club every day. When I go and work for Ndovu Football Club I will give 100% of my energy to Ndovu Football Club every day. It is just like changing jobs, and you try to do your very best each time. There's no looking back, the job lies ahead. Of course it is always nice to get one over a former club, especially when this affords one the bragging rights in the city for a couple of days—or weeks! But as soon as one allows this rivalry to dominate the season and the club's development, then the bigger picture is lost, and no development can or will take place.
After my move a lot of Safari Sports Club fans came to wish me well, and I sincerely thank them. Many of them also asked me what exactly made me decide to cross over to Ndovu Football Club, and it was—in part—to answer that question that I decided to write this book. Many people around the world often ask how a player, a coach or an official can possibly leave their club or team, and join the arch rivals ... And how do such decisions turn out? Do we always walk off into the sunset with our ambitions fulfilled and our decisions vindicated? Well, it's possible, and I hope that my story provides answers, but at the same time I hope that it will raise questions. If this is the case, then I have fulfilled my ambition, once again.
Excerpted from MORE THAN A GAME by RONNY MINTJENS Copyright © 2012 by Ronny Mintjens. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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