The Bernd Identity: Don't mix football with politics

The Bernd Identity: Don't mix football with politics

The name is Bernd. Bernd Stange.

But the German, a full-time football coach accused of being a part-time spy, told The Sunday Times his conscience is clear when questions on his controversial past were raised.

Trawling through Internet search engines, stories can be found of the 66-year-old former East Germany national coach (1984-88) collaborating as an informant for the Stasi (secret police) under the codename Kurt Wegner.

"No, it's nothing," Stange insisted. "Just because they find a signature from me (on Stasi documents), there was a big explosion in the media."

Until his alleged Stasi links emerged with the fall of the Berlin Wall, he had spent his entire playing (with Chemie Gnaschwitz, Vorwarts Bautzen and HSD DHfK Leipzig as a midfielder) and coaching career (Carl Zeiss Jena) in Germany.

He recalled his formative years: "It's a part of my life. I grew up as a son of a communist family. My father was in the world war in Russia.

"(After the war) He and my mother believed that communism is the future of the world. And this system failed.

"But I grew up in that system."

Leaving his homeland, Stange has also coached in countries where the shadows of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Belarus' strongman president Alexander Lukashenko loomed large.

But more drama was in store during his two-year tenure in Iraq from 2002 to 2004, where he drew flak in the West after he unintentionally posed in front of a portrait of Saddam.

Later, he wrote to world leaders asking for assistance to help the war-torn country rebuild and, during a visit to Britain, he was snapped with then foreign secretary Jack Straw, which saw him branded a traitor in Iraq.

Upon returning to Baghdad, he cheated death when gunmen fired a hail of bullets at his car. Although Stange was unhurt, that incident prompted him to quit.

For helping Iraq to rise into the world's top 50 rankings and reaching the 2004 Asian Cup quarter-finals and fourth in the Athens Olympics, Stange was honoured by Fifa chief Sepp Blatter with the Presidential Award.

The core of his Iraqi team eventually went on to lift the Asian crown in 2007.

Although he had coached in politically-sensitive countries, the German holds firmly to his principle, saying: "That you should stay in football and away from politics.

"You should not use football for any political reasons. East Germany used sports to show that the communist system is better than the other systems. It's the wrong way.

"Although political systems are different, the players are the same whether the footballers are in Iraq, Singapore and Germany.

"In the changing room, they're all the same. They have to kick the ball into the net and that's it."

This article was published on April 13 in The Straits Times.

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