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Singapore poses new test to Bernd Stange's nomadic career

Bernd Stange has been in football long enough to know what to expect when he was appointed Singapore head coach in May. If the former East Germany boss did not, however, his first months at the helm have made it clear.

Bernd Stange is proof of how far a persistent personality can go with football. A player of no real repute, Stange's career as a coach has been much more memorable.

He twice won the former East German top-division title - the DDR-Oberliga - with Carl Zeiss Jena before a six-year stint as head coach of the East German national team in the 1980s. Scandal hit Stange's post-unification job at Hertha Berlin; he was forced to stand down in 1992 after he was reportedly named in Stasi records as having spied on his players.

A nomadic career followed before his latest job - at the helm of Asian minnows Singapore.

Stange, 65, is no stranger to adversity, and that was exactly what he walked into when he was announced the Southeast Asian nation's head coach on May 15.

A recruitment company hired by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) to find a replacement for departed head coach Raddy Avramovic flirted with names like former Leeds United manager David O'Leary, ex-Republic of Ireland boss Brian Kerr and veteran Dutch head coach Arie Haan.

Bernd Stange in charge of East Germany in a match with Mexico in 1984.

Stange's time with East Germany was tainted with reports he spied on his players for the Stasi.

The process was excruciatingly slow. Finally, 144 days after Avramovic coached his last Singapore match, Stange's appointment was confirmed.

The pall of negativity over how long it took to hire a new coach was hardly Stange's fault, but it perhaps shed light on the job ahead.

"He's got so much to battle with," Singapore-based Reuters journalist Patrick Johnston told DW.

Straight in the deep end

Indeed, it has appeared so. After two friendly victories and some positive signs against Oman in August, Singapore were scuttled 6-1 by China on September 6 and edged 1-0 by Hong Kong four days later. It meant any honeymoon for Stange in his new role was fleeting at best.

Perhaps sensing that, Stange began his Singapore career with a charm offensive, and has been a constant presence at S.League matches - watching his players in action. At his unveiling, Stange wore a Singapore national team shirt sporting the No.2, a bid to show it was the Singapore team - not him - that came first.

Such showmanship is hardly a new string to Stange's trusty bow.

Alistair Edwards played under Stange at Australian club Perth Glory, having joined the club in 1998 - the same season as the German. Now coach of Perth himself, former Australian international striker Edwards told DW Stange had a reputation for helping elderly ladies with their shopping, "pushing their carts, and that sort of thing."

Bernd Stange poses with the team jersey after a press conference in Singapore on May 15, 2013. Singapore's national football team on May 15 named Bernd Stange of Germany as head coach of the national team, replacing Serbian Radojko Avramovic, who led the city-state to three Southeast Asian championships. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Stange's "charm offensive" will not be enough to cover the problems he already faces with Singapore.

Stange led Perth to the National Soccer League final in 2000 and is still extremely fondly remembered for his part in what was football's golden age in the Western Australia capital.

"He managed the whole process very, very well. [Football] became very, very big in a short period of time in Perth. There was a lot of theater, a lot of theatrics off the park," said Edwards, who has his own ties with Singapore after spending two seasons there as a player.

"The figurehead in all that was Bernd. People loved him... He did bring a lot of positive things."

After leaving the Glory in 2001, Stange had stints with Oman, Iraq and Belarus. The many politicians he would have shaken hands with along the way would have been proud of his showy start to life in Singapore, even if Stange made it clear football was the one and only priority.

"[As a] coach [I] should not be involved in too many political questions and discussions," he said at his unveiling when asked about the Stasi spying accusations. "My job is football and to try to win matches, which is the most important thing."

Smoking guns, food halls and drink bottles

But Stange will need a hide of that politician's shark skin if he is to transform Singapore football, which is caught in an unhealthy eddy of poor team culture, the constant threat of match-fixing, patchy governance and expectations that are fickle at a local level and yet underwhelming outside Southeast Asia.

The pool of players he can call upon is limited and sometimes prone to attitude problems, according to Johnston. He inherited "professional footballers in name but some of whom lack professionalism." Problems with smoking have been acknowledged by the FAS while a lack of fitness can be credited to poor diet and late night trips to food halls, Johnston said.

Players are also subject to national service, with talented midfielder Hariss Harun reportedly called away from a club game in 2012 to hand out water bottles at the Singapore Grand Prix.

Stange has turned to youth in a bid to accelerate a switch from the results-focused football favored by Avramovic to a style based on high pressing and ball retention.

Stange's litmus test

Avramovic's last act as Singapore coach was to win the 2012 ASEAN Football Championships, and how the Lions fare at the 2014 tournament they will co-host may well be how Stange's tenure will ultimately be remembered.

The 2015 Asian Cup will also fall within Stange's contract, and he has spoken of his desire to win a rare place despite Singapore going pointless in their first two qualifying matches. He may be alone in holding those expectations.

"When they talk about the Asian Cup… it's a just a bit naive really, because deep down you know he's the only one saying it. No-one else in that set up will probably believe it," Johnston said.

Stange can take some inspiration from the past, however, as he seeks to break the game in Singapore out of its dormancy.

"It's an exciting challenge, because when I was playing in Singapore it was absolutely incredible. At the national stadium, there was sell-out crowds - 55,000 people - each game," Edwards said. "It will suit Bernd's personality and his coaching style, but it will also suit Singapore, because … [it's] been a little bit in the doldrums."

Singapore-based journalist Johnston is also cautiously optimistic: "With all his experience with different people, you'd think he could be the right guy for it," he said.

Johnston added a footnote, however, comparing Stange's job to that of a certain new manager at Manchester United: "[David] Moyes thought he had it hard."