Hugo Broos is a well-travelled man. After playing over 500 matches at the top level in Belgium for RSC Anderlecht and Club Brugge, and gaining 24 caps for the Belgian national team, he embarked upon a worldwide managerial journey.
Now 65, his coaching career has seen him take charge of 12 teams in five different countries, and has led him to plying his trade as manager of the Cameroon national team.
The experience he accumulated over the decades, as player and mentor, saw him leading the Indomitable Lions to their fifth Africa Cup of Nations title in January.
The end of his successful playing career signified the start of an exciting managerial one, and he tells KweséESPN that he was only too happy to stay in the game, saying: “When you spend 17 years a professional player, it eventually comes to an end, so you begin to think in advance about what to do next.
“After so long, I naturally wanted to remain in football. I was lucky in the fact that I got the chance to start out as an assistant under Paul van Himst [at Molenbeek].
As an assistant, you can work with much less pressure; you’re behind the coach, have less responsibility and can focus on learning.
“When I started as a coach, after only two years I was managing one of the biggest clubs in Belgium, in Brugge.
Maybe it was a little bit down to luck and you need that in your career at times. After, I managed smaller teams, and this variation helps you. You learn a lot from having to work at different levels.”
The Belgian was not originally a leading candidate for the Cameroon job. In fact, he was not even on FECAFOOT’s shortlist, but he applied for the job online and his extensive CV was enough to convince the decision-makers that he was the right man for the job.
Their call has been vindicated, and Broos himself has no doubts over which, out of club and international management, he prefers.
He adds: “Working at international level is different. You don’t work every day, dealing with media confrontations or with day-to-day issues.
Between games you get to relax and watch a lot of football to keep track of your players; it’s almost like scouting.
“It’s good to watch games in different countries and, again, from this you learn a lot. I prefer life as a national team manager.”
Although his current role is his first in the international game, it is not his first in Africa, having previously managed NA Hussein Dey in Algeria between 2014-15.
“Managing in Africa is different to everywhere else,” he says. “Even within Africa itself, there are big differences.
“In Algeria and now with Cameroon, I can say the players from the latter are more open. Many strive for a better life and so they leave to play in Europe.
There can be cultural issues with [Algerian] players and they didn’t want to devote themselves to football. They did not work hard, did not want to train or live as professionals.
“It’s easier working with Cameroonian players because they are easier to convince that with hard work and discipline, they can achieve their dream of playing in Europe.
Managing Cameroon is heaven, but North Africa was hell. I would never return to Algeria,” he adds.
Yet, much as Broos enjoys managing Cameroon, things are far from perfect, he reflects: “African footballing organisations have their problems.
But, I have found that they do try their best to resolve issues and allow you to voice your opinions.
“In Europe, we strive for perfection and everything is organised. In Africa, this is difficult. I have tried to alter a lot in that aspect but there are some things which you just cannot change.”
Interestingly, it is his own pragmatism which now helps him see things from a different viewpoint: “If you organise to meet the chairman at 11:00, it will never start on time. That used to make me angry.
“People would say, ‘Hugo, why are you mad? I’m here!’ and even I have changed my way of thinking now. I think to myself, ‘why am I angry?’ I realise that perfection is impossible in African football.”
Broos has also worked through other high profile situations, and many similar conflicts have plagued other African federations.
Money being a prime example: “It’s true that there were times when FECAFOOT owed me some of my salary. But if you make a problem of this sort of thing, it really does become a big problem.
“I was patient and knew I would eventually get paid. These are small things that you cannot change, but it does not matter, because I was paid.
We are not used to these things in Europe but if you place too much focus on that, you lose focus on the important things, which are to perform well and win games.”
By the time this year’s Africa Cup of Nations came around, however, Cameroon had eight players refusing to play and Broos’ side were given little chance of success.
Despite his frustration, he does empathise with players torn between club and international football.
He adds: “It’s not easy for Africans to leave their clubs in January to play in the African Cup, I know that from my time as a club manager.
They face great pressure from their clubs to stay and I was the same, I used to get so angry when players were leaving to go to Africa.
“An example [of the pressure] is Andre Onana. He was not playing at Ajax but they sold Jasper Cillessen to Barcelona and Onana became their number one. But the club then signed Tim Krul.
“When AFCON came around, Onana told me he was worried that if he left to play for the month with us, Krul would replace him and he would return to Holland no longer as Ajax’s number one.
I do understand those dilemmas. I always said that the door is still open, and now he is in my preliminary Confederations Cup squad.”
That said, it is not so clear-cut with other players: “Some players didn’t even call me to say they don’t want to come back. Joel Matip is one, and it’s a pity because he’s such a great player.
“I’ll never call him again. I tried hard to convince him to return, but he has a personal problem. He has had bad experiences with Cameroon in the way that he was treated in the past, along with the fact that he was raised his whole life in Germany and is used to the European ‘perfection’ we spoke about earlier.”
When speaking about how to solve such issues, he says: “There’s only one solution to ensure players play for their countries at the African [Nations] Cup and that would be to hold it in June.”
In the end, high profile absences were irrelevant; the Indomitable Lions went on to beat Egypt 2-1 in the final in Gabon, courtesy of a late Vincent Aboubakar winner.
The coach credited honesty for the win, saying: “The key to our success was that I was very transparent. When I spoke for the first time to the players I set out clear rules which have remained the same throughout.
“The players have since told me that they appreciated this approach. I also selected players based on their form, regardless of his name.
Before, it was not like this. The top players could do whatever they wanted but with me, they all had to work hard and do their job properly.”
On the Confederations Cup in Russia in June, Broos is very clear about its significance for Cameroon: “It will be a great experience for us.
It’s something we have to win. We have a hard group with Germany and Chile, but it will be a great test of where we are compared to the world’s best.”