On October 15, England face a Belarus team whose coach used to be an informer for East Germany’s secret police. Paul Joyce reports

“Football trainers shouldn’t mix work and politics,” Belarus coach Bernd Stange stated in March. “That is dangerous.” His critics would argue that Stange has often used this tenet as an excuse to pursue his career while closing his eyes to the political and human consequences of his actions. A media-friendly, yet curiously elusive, figure, Stange was known in the former East Germany as “der Lügenbaron” – a modern-day Baron Münchhausen whose tall tales about his exploits needed to be taken with copious pinches of salt.

Stange started coaching at Carl Zeiss Jena in 1970, becoming head coach of the GDR national team in 1983. Under the code name “Kurt Wegner”, however, Stange was also an unusually eager informant for the state police between 1973 and 1986. According to his Stasi files for 1976, he not only volunteered to break into a flat to steal a diary, but also betrayed a family friend’s plans to flee to the West. 

“Kurt Wegner” also reported on the private lives of players and colleagues. Four years after Jörg Berger, Stange’s friend and fellow manager, had fled to West Germany via Yugoslavia, he received a phone call from Stange, who asked him about his knowledge of current GDR players. This 1984 ­conversation was then used by the Stasi as evidence that Berger planned to help players defect, placing him in considerable danger. “Stange was already the national coach and had no need to do this,” said Berger, after his files emerged. “He was just career-obsessed and it was also about money.”

When the extent of his Stasi involvement was revealed in 1995, Stange lost his job as technical director at Hertha Berlin and became persona non grata in German football. After spells at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Perth Glory, whom he guided to the Australian NSL Grand Final in 2000, he became national manager of Oman and then, in October 2002, of Iraq.

In the face of German media criticism, which increased when Stange posed for photos in front of a portrait of Saddam Hussein, the coach remained unrepentant. “I had a choice between staying unemployed or taking this job in Iraq,” Stange argued. Yet he had rejected an offer from Kazakhstan, seeing Iraq as more likely to reach the 2006 World Cup finals. It also emerged that he had read newspaper articles suggesting that Uday Hussein had tortured Iraqi players, but ­dismissed them as “manipulation”.

Stange left Baghdad ahead of the American invasion in 2003, yet returned four months later at great personal risk, earning the FIFA Presidential Award from Sepp Blatter for his part in rebuilding Iraqi football. Often paying for the team’s flights from his own pocket, Stange shaped the national side into a unit that finished fourth in the 2004 Olympics and went on to win the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, although he himself left in June 2004 amid fears for his personal security.

Yet in July 2007 Stange revived concerns about his judgment by becoming Belarus coach. Since Alexander Lukashenko came to power in 1994, Belarus has been described as Europe’s last dictatorship, whose human-rights abuses include the imprisonment and disappearance of opposition leaders, media censorship and undemocratic elections. “I couldn’t care less about that,” Stange stated bluntly. “I’m the national manager of a country with a huge football tradition and that’s all that counts. My working conditions are as good as anything that I’ve experienced in my long football career.”

Far from refusing to comment on politics, Stange is full of praise for the cleanliness and order that Lukashenko has created in Minsk. “Criminality doesn’t exist here,” he enthused. “In Jena I have to fetch my wife from the cinema in the evenings. But here girls can walk in the park at night.”

Stange’s success in restructuring the national team around Alexander Hleb cannot be denied. After a 2-1 victory over Holland last November and a 2-2 draw with Germany this May, his aim of reaching the 2010 World Cup looks more attainable, not least because Belarus have been drawn in the same qualifying group as England. But the extent to which sport is being used by Lukashenko to distract from his country’s human-rights record remains open to question. It’s a question, one suspects, that Stange will never allow himself to ask.

From WSC 260 October 2008

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