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Winfried Schäfer: to release the potential of Chinese players

By Lasse Darre & Li Yang 19 Apr 2016

Here at Yutang Sports, we are very delighted that we got a great opportunity to do an interview with German football coach Winfried “Winnie” Schäfer.

Winfried has a lot of experience in international football, worked with teams all around the world and follows the development of football in Asia, especially in China very closely. 
As a player Winfried won the German Championship and the European Championship. After retired from football as a player, he decided to choose another path, Coaching.

Winfried’s coaching career started in Borussia Möchengladbach. After years of coaching clubs in Germany, he started to coach clubs and National teams in Asia, Africa and America. Currently he is head coach of the Jamaican national team. Winfried did also discover talents who became top players (Oliver Kahn, Mehmet Scholl).

What does Chinese football need then?

YT=Yutang Sports   WS=Winfried Schäfer

YT: What got you interested in Chinese football?

WS: Everybody who loves football faces east at the moment. The AFC is the fastest growing football market of the world. It is very interesting to watch how every single country of Asia tries to develop and improve their football. Among all the Asian countries, China is outstanding in their impressive efforts to establish a football culture and develop the sport from the ground. In the nineties the UAE tried the same and I was a part of this development. Building structures, working with a long term goal, establishing a trainings philosophy and developing tactic/strategy matching strength and weaknesses of a team or country are the most interesting challenges for a coach and it is also what I do best. China has a great optimism and establishes this spirit of departure; that’s a wonderful challenge and a satisfying working environment.

YT: You have coached both National teams and clubs. What do you prefer and why?

WS: Oh, that’s a difficult question because I love both. It’s so different. I love to be a club coach, because you can work with the team every day. You can improve the performance of every single player, you work closely with your youth team and it is very satisfying to scout a young player, establish him first in the youth team and then finally implement him in the senior team. Take as an example Oliver Kahn. I took care of him since he was 15, 16. Step by step we developed his skills and finally he was the best goalkeeper of Germany. To be a national coach is wonderful, because you take care of a whole country. You establish a long term plan for a whole football nation; you work closely with every club, with all the coaches. A good national trainer is not only a coach for the national players, but also for the coaches of the clubs.

YT: Now that you have coached in countries like Germany, UAE, Cameroon, Thailand and Jamaica, is there then different strategies in how to coach. Does your philosophy change from country to country?

WS: That’s a good question. Of course the core of my philosophy is always the same. You’ll always need confidence and fearless wining mentality, exceptional fitness, skills, technic and honest passion for the game. But on the other side you need to be aware of the huge differences between nations. You need to understand mentality and football history, you need to identify the already established football style and you need to respect it. One mistake that I witnessed over the years again and again in many different countries was this idea to simply copy a specific philosophy to become successful. Very often `Brazilian` or of course `Spanish` football.

That will never work. Even worse, this will automatically lead to disappointment and frustration, because the expectation will never be satisfied. So the basis of successful coaching is always intense and honest analysing. You identify strength and weaknesses, possibilities and problems and then you develop a long term strategy. You encourage and develop the strength, you improve the weaknesses and at the same time you implement elements of different game philosophies from all around the world to improve the performance and the understanding of the game step by step. When you implant new elements, you don’t do that randomly and never because something like ́tiki taka` is trendy at the moment.
Instead you choose wisely, you handpicked and you don’t forget that every nation already has an established philosophy. So all new elements have to fit into the already established system.

YT: Do you think it will be hard to adapt to the Chinese football, as they still are in development and a lot different from Germany?

WS: No, not at all. An experienced coach would be able to adapt quickly, because that’s his fundamental skills, analysing and adaption. And don’t forget, it’s not about the German style or philosophy, but about elements from Germany, other European nations, South American and African elements, simple the best aspects of modern football as an addition to the Chinese style and philosophy. It would be exciting, because there is so much potential. You see, with the right training, you could Improve the overall performance of the local player quickly and after the first successful games, when the player experienced their own improvement, they’ll be even more excited and motivated and you ́ll develop a wonderful dynamic of constant improvement.

YT: According to your 4 pillars of success, how would you describe them on the Chinese football league? Which pillars is the Chinese league good at, and where are they missing some of the pillars?

WS: Yes, there are four pillars of success, physical training, tactics and technique, mentality. Having the right tactic is the key, but you can only establish the right tactic, if the players have the proper technique, you can only master the right technique with the right physical training and all of that only leads to success if the whole team has the right spirit, the right mentality. All the elements are linked and if you neglect one element the system will collapse. No question Chinese players have a solid fitness. Discipline and hard physical training is something you’ll find in most Chinese teams, but after watching many games I think there could be some improvement. It ́s not necessarily the ́hardest ́ physical training that leads to success, but the smartest and for that you need fitness coaches who are also football coaches, woman and man who understand football and can provide fitness training tailored for the needs of the game. Technique is still a problem in china too. The clubs improved a lot, but there are deficits in some basic skills and that ́s a serious problem. How good does the player move with the ball? How fast can he pass and adapt to new situations? This is something you have to learn from a very, very young age and once again, you need trainers who are not only good in theory, but have a history as active player too. Tactic is of course the hardest discipline, because you need technique and fitness to master new tactics. Switching in game from one tactic to the other, being able to surprise the opponents, all that is necessary in modern football and still is a problem for many teams.

The big advantage of China is for sure the spirit. China seems to be excited for football and the player seem to be hungry to improve their skills. China established a spirit of optimism and that’s wonderful and a very big advantage for the future.

YT: What can the Chinese league do to improve the missing pillars?

WS: Guangzhou Evergrande has already the biggest football school of the world but of course it’s not only about quantity but quality. Unfortunately, football always attracts all kind of people who are only interested in money and when China announced that they want to develop their football and that they are willing to spend a lot of money to achieve their goals, greedy people from around the world tried to take part in the process. So the most important thing to do, but also the most difficult is, to choosing the right coaches and expert from abroad. People with experience and most important, coaches who are not only focused on short term goals, not only focused in money and their team’s performances, but also love football and love to work hand in hand with the Chinese coaches. Guangzhou Evergrande has a few very good German coaches at the moment and I ́m expecting a lot from them.

A good foreign coach will build a trainer team with handpicked foreign experts and a few talented, young Chinese coaches. He will work very closely with the Chinese coaches of his team; he will help them to become better coaches and step by step give them more responsibility.

YT: You have a lot of experience with youth talents, and how to get the most out of them. In China there is short supply of talents. Do you have any advices?

WS: I heard that very often and I disagree. There will be a lot of talents in China. The challenge is to find them. It ́s all about an intelligent, efficient scouting network, but once again, for that you ́ll need experts, many, many very good scouts and a professional information network. The information should be evaluated by clubs and also the centers of excellence, the national team coaches. That’s why communication and cooperation is so important. 

YT: What do you think the Chinese football governing body and Chinese government could do to help develop our football?

WS: As far as I see it, they already do a lot. The people of China want to be a part of the international football world and they deserve to play a bigger role. So it was a wise decision to establish football as school sport. It is also important to connect the clubs. They need to establish an environment of competition and cooperation. Exchange of knowledge and experience and all that should be coordinated by a strong national coach team. But once again, you can’t be successful without the help from foreigners. I understand that this may sound a bit harsh and I even understand that many people feel uncomfortable with it. But to improve, China needs at this point in their history of football, help from outside. I don’t think that’s a weakness, but an opportunity. A few months ago Chinese friends of me contacted me and asked me if I can imagine becoming national coach of China and of course I could. That would be an outstanding challenge and to be part of the maybe biggest enterprise in football history would be exciting. But on the other side I understood that the people in China are disappointed with foreign coaches at the moment.

YT: Are you going to take some of your time to discover new talents, or do you focus 100% on your coaching career? 

WS: Discover and improve new talents is one of the most satisfying challenges in football, so that’s something I always do. As a national coach and as a club coach too. But of course it is important to have a team of good scouts too. When I chose by coaching staff it ́s always one of my priorities that they know how to discover talents. 

YT: Are you a fan of the Chinese Super League? Which Chinese club could you see yourself coaching?

WS: Of course I am. As I said I enjoy the development. I don’t have a favourite team. And if I would decide to work in China I would do so with a club that is interested in an intelligent long term development. A club with focus on local players and development of structures and improvement of Chinese football in general. In a certain way, it would be even more interesting to work together with a club that’s not on the top ten right now.

YT: How much do you know about Chinese national team?

WS: A lot. I followed their performance over the last years but I was disappointed. I haven’t seen a real improvement and that worries me a lot. A few years back I watched the U21 team at a tournament in Laos. I saw a lot of talent, spirit and overall good fitness and a good attitude. On the other side their deficits where quit obvious. Not good in adaption of new situation, not very creative and the individual performance and the will to take responsibility in game changing situations wasn’t strong. If you watch the last five, six games of the senior national team you ́ll witness exactly the same flaws and that ́s sad, because at the same time you see so much potential. It seems as if the young player just waits for the right signal, the right input, motivation and training to unleash their true potential.

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