AMUNEKE: ALL I OWE PEOPLE IS RESPECT
To speak with Emmanuel Amuneke, one gets the sense that he does not care that much for what people think of him. Certainly, he has achieved enough in his career, both as player and coach, to adopt that outlook, to be confident in his own worth despite external influence.
Except, of course, he does care.
In March, he guided Tanzania to a 3-0 win over Uganda, a result which meant the Taifa Stars would be making a return to the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in 39 years. Yet, there is a school of thought that his arrival in the role was opportune, that he simply rode a wave that was already at its zenith.
He makes no attempt to plead his case. At least, not initially. “I don’t argue with people. Everybody is free to say what they want.” A shrug.
“I’m not interested in people talking. Well, if they say I was lucky, maybe I was. If somebody else had come here, he would have qualified: it’s true, it could happen. People were here before me, so I didn’t start the journey.”
For all his affected indifference, he does, however, return to peck at the notion time and again, but it is clear that it is not out of vanity. For the 1994 African Footballer of the Year, it is simply a matter of fairness and respect: he gives it, and he demands his due in equal measure.
“All I owe people is respect. But am I going to be arguing with people that don’t watch the training sessions to know what we’re doing? I don’t know what people want; maybe they want someone else to be there.
“If they say I was lucky, fine. But they should ask themselves [why it took] 39 years. So they should be grateful to God, who made it possible for me to come. I may not be a good coach, but there is a reason I’m here, and once I’m done with what I’m doing here, I’ll move to somewhere else, where God wants me to go. For today, I’m just happy that 55 million Tanzanians are happy.”
There is pride in the air in Dar es Salaam at the prospect of experiencing the Africa Cup of Nations, for the first time in close to four decades, as fans rather than merely as spectators. But there is a slow burn quality to it; this is a new generation of fans who have not previously loved and lost, as it were.
He smiles at the recollection. “First it was like a dream – is it real? But as days passed, weeks, months now, people are beginning to realize how important it is.”
The prospect did not always feel real, in truth. Tanzania began the qualifying series with a damaging draw at home against Lesotho under the guidance of Salum Mayanga, after which Amuneke was approached by the Tanzania Football Federation (TFF) to take the role. At the time, however, he had made a commitment to coach Sudanese club Al Khartoum SC – “They (TFF) said they would take care of everything, I said I deal with honesty, so don’t.” – so he turned the offer down.
However, the stint in Sudan was short-lived, and both parties parted ways by mutual consent, an experience he describes as “preparation”. After the World Cup, during which Amuneke worked as a member of the Technical Study Group, Tanzania came back. This time, they got their man.
It must have felt good to be so wanted, yes? On this, the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations winner is philosophical, and draws an unflattering parallel with what obtains in his home country.
“Everybody wants to coach his country, but are you being valued in your country? That’s another question. They (Tanzania) saw something in me. My belief is to help them.”
That desire to pay back the confidence reposed in him does not, however, cloud his judgement. Nor did it keep him from stepping on toes right from the off, as he identified a change in character and outlook was needed.
The national team, previously dominated by the country’s two biggest clubs Young Africans SC and Simba SC, had grown dank under the weight of its own complacency. That was the first shock to the system from Amuneke: he immediately threw the curtains open and cast the net wider.
“For me, I’m not interested in where you play or where you’re from. If you’re good, I believe everybody deserves an opportunity, it doesn’t matter where you play. And that is what keeps me interested. I believe in developing people.”
He also adopted a more hard-edged outlook with the players, emphasizing discipline, commitment and passion. His method? Candour, at all times – a high-risk strategy in an era of football where player power has never been more prevalent.
“I told them: I don’t need to be your friend to do my job. I don’t need for you to like me, or for me to like you. When a coach becomes everybody’s friend, that’s the beginning of his failure.”
Success was not immediate though: a creditable goalless draw away to Uganda in his first competitive match in charge was followed by a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Cape Verde. The scoreline did not quite tell the full story of an open game in Praia, but immediately the pressure was on.
Did he ever feel like he might have bitten off more than he could chew, especially after those first two matches? “There is no job without pressure. I’m clear in my ideas, and how I want to do things. As long as I’m not putting my own interests first; because I’m always thinking about the team first.”
Crucially, despite the rising murmurs, he got emotional investment and buy-in from the players, whom he describes as “pioneers”. With them onside, he was able to implement his playing philosophy, based stridently upon the collective.
“In my teams, if you don’t mark, you won’t play. We all defend together, and we all attack together. As a coach, I believe more in organization and responsibility.
“When we attack, how do we have balance without losing the structure of the team? When we defend, how do we press the man on the ball? So, all those things: the little details; I like to pay attention to them.”
He also has shown an important capacity for learning and adapting to the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent. Four days after that 3-0 defeat to Cape Verde, Tanzania got theirs back in Dar es Salaam, winning 2-0 to get Amuneke’s reign off the ground.
Having drawn somewhat fortunately in Kampala, his side was ready for Uganda in the return. Only a win would do on the final day, and the weight of history was against them, as was the fact that the Cranes had not conceded a single goal in qualifying up until that point. It was important to inject belief into the players.
“It was a beautiful day for Tanzanian football. I told them, ‘It is time for you to make history!’
“Uganda is a very good side, very experienced, but we had to face them. We played them in Kampala, we saw what they were capable of, we knew how they play. We worked in that direction and we were able to achieve our objective.”
And how! Time and again, Tanzania cut into Uganda with a direct, high-tempo style that the visitors had no answer to. Previously pristine at the back, the Cranes shipped three, their fortitude eroded by wave upon wave of blue surf.
This ability to forensically take apart the opposition will stand the Taifa Stars in good stead come the AFCON in Egypt in June. While Senegal is the out-and-out favourite in Group C and boasts quality right through the side, there might be scope to similarly stun Algeria, who have a bit of a weak underbelly in midfield.
It’s a challenge he is relishing, and he is a huge supporter of the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams. Beyond the obvious reason, Amuneke believes it is an acknowledgement of the growth of football across the continent, and says any remaining scepticism of the format will be gone with time.
“Countries play qualifiers to be at the AFCON. They aren’t invited. Everyone went through difficulties and played tough games to be there. Which means, if you qualify, you have worked to be there, and if you don’t qualify, you have not done enough.
“We are going to adapt to it. It’s a gradual process. Change brings uncertainty and fear, but it’s only those who are bold enough that can make changes and take steps to do things differently from the others.”
It is that willingness – a desire, even – to embrace change and the unknown that has set Amuneke apart, and on a path to history with the Stars.