"If the derby’s on in Cairo then the streets are empty!"

Describing Otto Pfister as a globetrotter is almost doing him a disservice. In his nigh-on 60 years as a football coach, he has been at the helm of 24 different club and national teams. First and foremost, he has made a name for himself in Africa, winning the FIFA U-17 World Cup with Ghana and taking teams to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations twice in four attempts. In 1992 he was voted African Coach of the Year.

Pfister has also enjoyed a great deal of success in the Arab world, particularly at club level. After a turbulent time as Saudi Arabian national coach, he steered Cairo giants Zamalek SC to glory in the league, cup and African Cup Winners’ Cup. In Lebanon he again coached a team to the league title, this time Nejmeh SC from Beirut. Most recently he worked as Afghanistan national coach.

As part of the "Foot et Monde Arabe" special exhibition, we present an expert guided tour on November 6th with Otto Pfister. Come and listen to the German-born strategist talk you through his time in the Arab world (click here for more information and to sign up). Ahead of this date for your diaries, we spoke to him about his various experiences.


Otto Pfister on…

…his approach to new and unfamiliar cultures in countries where he has worked:
You have to accept that whenever you arrive somewhere new, you will have to face a different kind of mindset. The people there grew up in a totally alien social environment and were educated differently. If you then try to impose the German mindset, you’ll fail – you can turn around and head straight back to the airport. You need to accept the other mindset, adapt to it and try to underline the things that are important to you and to work them in. If you get all worked up about the local customs, then you don’t stand a chance.

…his time as national coach of Saudi Arabia:
That was a crazy period. In November 1997, we qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France. Just a month after that, the Confederations Cup began in Saudi Arabia and first up we played Brazil, who’d brought all their stars with them. After we lost that match 3-0, Prince Faisal bin Fahhd, who was president of the Saudi football association at the time, was obviously less than pleased and he gave me two weeks to set out my plan for the World Cup preparations, including the list of players. I did that but he wasn’t satisfied with the squad and wanted me to swap one of the players. I decided to be brave and said: "Your Royal Highness, you may be my boss but I’m the coach and I can’t accept that."

I was then demoted to coaching the Olympic team and Brazil’s Carlos Alberto Parreira was brought in as national coach. Then when he lost the opening two games in the group stage at the World Cup to Denmark and France, he was fired and Prince Faisal wanted me to take over the team again. I did just that after the World Cup and three months later, I won the Arab Nations Cup and stuck it on the prince’s desk.

…the Cairo derby between Zamalek SC and Al Ahly:
The Cairo derby is one of the biggest in the world. I got to experience it up close six times as a coach and it really is something special. The match is sold out weeks before kick-off and you can get over 100,000 fans in the stadium.

When the derby’s on, the city is like ghost town. There’s no-one out on the streets as they’re all huddled around TVs or radios. People are obsessed with their team. They sleep in club colours, and love of the team is handed down from generation to generation.

The rivalry between the two clubs and their fans is enormous, and things get out of hand before the game. When I was coach, the president of my club always hired a bodyguard for me three days before the match so that no-one could get to me. During my time as coach, German FIFA referee Dr. Markus Merk was in charge of the derby and another time it was Pierluigi Collina. They always brought in foreign refs.

…the influence of religion on his work as a football coach:
Obviously as a coach you have to take religious particularities into account. For example, during Ramadan, you don’t train until midnight because Muslims can only eat and drink after sundown and then they can’t train straight away on a full stomach. The kick-off times are also organised around it with matches being played in the evening. Training can also be interrupted because it’s prayer time. Everyone prays and then you carry on. You just have to accept that.

…the regional particularities and differences within the Arab world:
The main thing they have in common is of course the religion, Islam. But it’s applied to different levels in the various regions between north-west Africa and the Arabian peninsula. And there are not just Shi’ites and Sunnis but also some other groups, who again are different from one another. Compared with Europe though, it’s clear to see that religion is the focal point of their society. It’s the first commandment. And this makes the coach’s life easier because there is a certain sense of discipline. People don’t get up to stupid things.

…his time as coach in Beirut (Lebanon) with Nejmeh SC
Football in Lebanon is strongly influenced by political and religious tendencies. One club is the team of a particular religious group, while another will be the government team. I coached Nejmeh SC when I was there and had a lot of success with them.

During my time there as coach, the sponsor of my club – former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri – was assassinated in a bomb attack. I was sitting just two kilometres away in a café by the sea playing chess. I really heard the blast, despite how far away I was. That puts a vastly different perspective on things and it got me thinking – in particular since it wasn’t the first bomb attack that I had experienced there.

I spent two years in total at Nejmeh SC. After the assassination though I didn’t renew my contract. It wasn’t out of fear but more so a sense of responsibility towards my family. Fear is a poor companion. If you’re afraid, then you shouldn’t do your job – you should just stay at home.