Ronny Mintjens - A Life In Football: "More Than a Game"
Christopher KL Lau
Writer, footballer, coach, educator and traveller extraordinaire, Ronny Mintjens is truly a renaissance man. Mintjens has a story to tell and he shares his enthralling tales with us in his awe-inspiring and commendable book More Than A Game.
Mintjens has lived a rich and varied life which has seen him make some bold and audacious career moves which have, in turn, seen him truly experience life to the fullest. His fascinating life story has taken him from his native Belgium to the heart of Africa to the Middle East and now to Hong Kong, the bustling city which he now calls home.
Along the way, he has played for his childhood team, become a star and coached in both Swaziland, Tanzania and Qatar and met a whole host of stars including Pele, Maradona, Neeskens, Beckenbauer, Guardiola, Fernando Hierro, Beckham, Zidane, Batistuta, Canniggia, Frank Leboeuf, Marcel Desailly, Stefan Effenberg, Ronaldo (from Brazil), Ronaldinho, Frank Rijkaard, Frank and Ronald De Boer! Mintjens also found the time to teach in between.
His engrossing story began in his early twenties. Mintjens was at a crossroads in his life and having achieved his childhood dream of playing for his beloved Royal Antwerp Football club, the wider world beckoned and he seized the chance with both hands (feet!).
His twin loves of football and travel triggered his wanderlust and he was soon headed to the captivating and enchanting kingdom of Swaziland. Mintjens' life would never be the same again as a new chapter of his life began. He would soon experience the gripping and enthralling world of African football in all its glory and idiosyncrasies.
Mintjens would soon become a household name and acquired the creative nickname "Kapsie Dans"; his name would regularly appear in the media. Unfortunately, an injury cut short his playing career and he then made the move into coaching where instead of dealing with opposition players and fans; he had to face the day to day issues of administration, management, bureaucracy and corruption. Most would flee from such a challenge or become quickly disheartened and disillusioned but Mintjens took it as a learning experience which is reflective of his open-minded nature, his curiosity about the ever evolving world around him, his empathy for others and his sense of humor!
All is revealed in his autobiographical book More than a Game. This is an incredibly entertaining book which is far and away from your average football read; this is real life exposed to a deeper degree and level of insight and analysis.
Mintjens explains how a child like wonder at the game of football enabled him to venture around the world, explore and experience different cultures and different countries and make new friends with ease.
Mintjens' ardent passion and enthusiasm for the global game and its development is apparent throughout the text as he looks to unearth and develop new talents to release to a wider stage. The book allows the reader to peer into the unpredictable world of African football and how bureaucracy, old customs and the power of a few can influence the game.
From the witchcraft sacrifices to dealing with league politics; Mintjens injects his writing with real heart and humor to keep the reader fully engaged. Mintjens has a treasure chest of experiences and stories to share with his readers; his tales of triumph and disappointment are told with such energy and vigor that you can't but feel you were directly alongside him during his epic journey through the beautiful continent of Africa.
More Than A Game is a thoroughly entertaining, idealistic and captivating story. A young man left Belgium to pursue his dreams and to see the world and we are lucky that he shares his amazing story with us. Highly recommended.
Ronny Mintjens Interview
What is the general premise behind your book "More than a Game"? What can readers expect?
The book actually started off as a newspaper article. When I had become disillusioned with the lack of progress and direction at Safari Sports Club, I decided to try my luck with the local rival. I made a move comparable with switching from Manchester United to Manchester City, or from Arsenal to Tottenham. As soon as I made that move, fans of Safari SC would walk up to me in the streets of Dar Es Salaam and ask me why I had crossed over to their rival. So I explained myself … and again … and again. After a while I asked myself, "wouldn't it be easier to write a newspaper article to explain myself to the whole country at once?". And I answered "Yes". So I started to write this article, which soon became a reflection on what I had experienced. Later on, with further thought and reflection, I completed the story by going back all the way to my childhood, to try and discover where this passion for football came from, and to take a step back from the immediate action in order to gain a better perspective on my life in football. The final outcome is More Than A Game.
Like millions of young boys, you wanted to become a professional footballer. When did you know that this dream would become a reality?
It was something that I always dreamed of, but I never knew whether it would work out or not until that day when I was 18 years old and I was called into the head coach's office and he asked me what my plans for my studies were. I told him that I wanted to complete my studies at university but that I also wanted to go as far as I could in football. In those days, the salaries earned by footballers were very small in comparison with what is being offered today, so I always felt that it was essential to also get a degree. The coach agreed with me and told me that the club wanted to offer me a contract. We agreed that it should be a semi-professional contract, so that I could attend classes at university in the morning and train in the afternoons. In those days there were three First Division clubs in the city of Antwerp (this coming season there are none !), and they all wanted to ensure that their young players didn't cross over to the rivals - this is why we were offered contracts at a relatively young age.
It is fair to say that during my youth my footballing talents were not exceptional. There usually were more technically gifted players on the teams that I played in, but there were few team mates who put in as much effort as I did. As the novel explains, I trained day and night, in all sorts of weather conditions, and it was this determination and drive that got me as far as I got. Some of those more technically gifted players never made it as far as I did.
According to your book, an injury cut short your career. How hard was it to adjust to changing roles and becoming a coach and manager?
The hardest part was not being able to play football, or even just jog, for close to one year. My recovery after the knee operation was a long and painful one, with many hours spent on physiotherapy. Nothing is more boring than physiotherapy - you want to get out on to the football field, and all you can do is lunges and stretches. The first months after the operation were dedicated to the recovery, but after a few months I started to feel the urge to involve myself in football again. I decided to go back to my club (Safari Sports Club) and literally threw myself in the position of coach - as the book explains. Once the recovery had been completed, I did want to get back on the football field, and truth be told, during some of the friendly matches that we played I came on as a substitute, with the sole intention of teaching my players from within the field. But I never registered myself to play in competitions again, as this would have been unfair towards a young player who was able to contribute more to the team in the long term. Also, in Africa I had to be careful while playing football after the operation. Not everyone was sympathetic towards the old injury, and it would not have come as a big surprise if the defenders of our rival teams had targeted my knee during a competitive match. I was not prepared to go through the same ordeal twice!
Coaching more than made up for the lack of game time though. I loved the fact that I could prepare the team, influence the game from the sidelines, take pride in what we were slowly building, and share the joy of victory with the players, the fans and sometimes the club directors. Making an effective tactical move or a game-winning substitution leaves a great feeling of achievement. I was also fortunate that I could build the Safari team from scratch. As the book explains, there is usually a lot of player movement in the off-season, and our recruitment exercise was very thorough and tough. One day we didn't have a team at all, and a few weeks later we were leading the Premier League. u went to Africa, how supportive were your friends and family? How hard was it to adjust to life on the continent?
I never really asked anyone - everyone knew that this was what I wanted to do, and they knew me well enough to let me go pursue my dream. I adjusted to life in Africa very quickly - it was easy to make friends through football, and being the only white player in the country's Premier League certainly helped! (this was in Swaziland). This quick adaptation showed how powerful sports can be in bringing people together. I learned the language very quickly, I tried my best to involve myself in the local community, I learned to live as they live, to speak as they speak and to think as they think, and I was easily accepted into the cultures that I joined.
From your own experiences in African football, do some of the issues you experienced in your time there still exist now? Has African football progressed?
I try to follow African football as well as I can, and it is clear that in the countries where I lived, the situation has not changed a lot. The clubs continue to struggle because of the never-ending conflicts between the committees, the members and the football association. The standard of play has not improved much either. Occasionally Tanzania will defeat an African rival, but more often than not they continue to be the poor relative of Africa's more traditional powerhouses. And as for Swaziland - they have not improved at all, and hardly ever get past the preliminary qualifiers in the continental tournaments. I do not really see this situation changing until such time when the broader set-up, including the grass roots level academies and the general educational provisions in these countries improves.
As for corruption and mismanagement, this seems to be spreading on a more global scale, rather than decreasing. We hear regular reports of football officials and associations being involved in corrupt deals, in vote-rigging and in under-the-table payments. It is difficult to see when, if ever, this will be resolved.
What are the outstanding memories from your time in Swaziland and Tanzania?
Definitely my interactions with the people. Before moving to Swaziland I knew relatively little about this country, and during my six years there the people never ceased to amaze me. Their perspective on life was very different from what I was used to, and the ease with which they accepted me as one of theirs without judging was truly remarkable. The pace of life is very different from Europe, most people like to take things one day at a time, and it was really rewarding to see that most people were very contented with their lives. Tanzania is the poorer of the two countries, and the issues that I encountered there were more deep-rooted than those in Swaziland. In Tanzania one has to be more careful when dealing with the local people, as there often seemed to be a deeper reason behind everything they do. This may have been my personal perception, and it may have been the perception of someone who was a few years older than the footballer in Swaziland. Since I spent most of my time in Tanzania coaching rather than playing, the stakes for me were also much higher. I was much more involved in the administrative side of football management, and I saw and heard things that I could hardly believe. As a cultural learning experience, these memories are invaluable.
In your opinion, what was the greatest game you played in AND what was your greatest game?
This is a very difficult question. I have played in so many games, and there were very few that I did not enjoy. I could mention some of the cup finals I played in, solely because of what was at stake, but some of the best memories actually go all the way back to when I was a junior footballer in Belgium and we had to play in the mud, in the snow or in the pounding rain. Getting to the dressing room at halftime, half frozen and with ice in our hair, and then drinking a cup of hot lemon tea is unforgettable. Despite the harsh weather conditions, we all loved those matches - and even more so when we won of course!
In terms of senior football, the game that stands out most in Swaziland was a match between Manzini Wanderers - my first team in Swaziland - and Mbabane Highlanders - my second team in Swaziland. The game was played in the capital, Mbabane, in front of a few thousand spectators whom I was certain to meet again in the mall or around town in the days following the match. That afternoon, I felt truly inspired and not only scored a couple of goals, but also managed to run rings around the opposing defenders so much so that two of them got themselves sent off for trying to stop me through illegal means. They simply couldn't handle the situation, and we ran out comfortable winners. The next day though, I met up with some of the previous day's opponents and we had a good laugh about it all. A few weeks later, Mbabane Highlanders signed me from Manzini Wanderers!
You played with a golden generation of Belgian footballers (Gerets, Scifo, Preud'homme). Do you think the current golden generation of Belgian footballers can emulate their amazing feats?
Certainly. A new generation of very good footballers has recently emerged, and with the experience that they have all gained in the UK, in Holland and in France, they have learned to match themselves against the best players. The generation of the eighties was excellent also, but had far less international exposure. Apart from one or two exceptions, all the players played in the Belgian league, which was quite strong but not quite as strong as the Italian and German leagues in those days. The philosophy in those days was that each game was eleven vs eleven - and we believed that we could square up against the traditional giants. The standout game from that period was the 1986 World Cup second-round match against the Soviet Union. Belgium was given very little chance of defeating the mighty Soviets, but if you watch the video of that match, you will notice how the Belgian lions were completely determined not to lose that match. A great motivational lesson lies in that one game, which Belgium won 4-3.
Of course I hope that our current crop of national team players can live up to the expectations that have started to build up. If we do qualify for the World Cup in Brazil, then I believe that the team can go far. But football is and remains a strange game - so you never quite know what is going to happen next.
Do you have any advice for budding professional footballers? What are some of the sacrifices which have to be made?
There are no secrets in achieving sporting success. There is no magic and there are no shortcuts. Everything starts and ends with hard work. In the very competitive world that we live in, you always have to be one step ahead of the next person, you always have to run one more sprint than the next person, and you should be the first player to arrive on the training field, and the last one to leave. Hard work pays off, even if eventually you don't make it all the way to the top. The top is a very narrow one, with just a handful of players ever reaching it. But every young player should be content with giving his or her best during every training and every match. Nobody can expect more than that, and the enjoyment will come from knowing that you've tried your hardest. As a youngster, I never realized that I was making sacrifices. I wanted to play football all day long, and there were very few temptations outside the game. Of course times have changed. We now live in a digital world where everything is at a fingertip's length. The young people of today have to constantly make choices, and some choices are hard to resist. It is then important to keep focusing on where you want to be. It is essential to set realistic targets, and to plot a map that will get you to that target. Character and personal discipline are more important than ever before. At the same time, the performance levels that are now expected from top athletes, be it footballers or other, are incredibly high. Only the very best will make it to the level where professional football actually pays off. High-performance training is now part and parcel of every respected youth sports development program. It's tough, but it's possible.
Who are some of the big names of world football that you have met? What are they like in real life?
I have met quite a few of the all-time greats : Pele, Maradona, Neeskens, Beckenbauer, Guardiola, Fernando Hierro, Beckham, Zidane, Batistuta, Canniggia, Frank Leboeuf, Marcel Desailly, Stefan Effenberg, Ronaldo (from Brazil), Ronaldinho, Frank Rijkaard, Frank and Ronald De Boer, Bora Milutinovic, Bruno Metsu, Omar Hitzfeld, Philippe Troussier etc.
From the above list, I have struck up good friendships with Pep Guardiola and Gabriel Batistuta - we worked together in Qatar for three years, and spent a lot of time on the golf courses together!
I was privileged to spend a full day in the company of Pele, and then the next day in the company of Diego Maradona.
There is often a big difference between how these public figures are portrayed in the media and how they are in 'real' life. I got to know some of the above personalities as family people, as husbands and fathers, as down-to-earth nice people who just happened to be very good footballers or coaches. Pele is an amazing man, very humble and very sociable, he enjoys talking about football anecdotes and his passion for the game is very obvious. Tellingly, when we met he did not ask me how many World Cups I had won, nor did he tell me that he had won three. Instead, he enquired about my work in African football, he compared it with what happens in the Brazilian villages where he often visits, and during our long discussions, we were equals.
In a one-to-one situation, Diego Maradona is an extremely likeable man who enjoys a laugh, who loves to play table tennis or badminton with small children, who jokes around and who makes time for everyone who wants to have a chat. When asked boring questions by uninspired journalists, he cracks a joke about his "Hand of God" goal in the 1986 World Cup. The same applies to Pep Guardiola, to David Beckham and to Zinedine Zidane.
As explained in More Than A Game, one needs to be very wary of the media and of the interests that the reporters serve. Their purpose is to sell, not to reveal how 'mundane' these celebrities are.
It must be said though that if you are in the football business, and if you have played or coached at the high level, then that 'wow' factor isn't quite the same as for regular fans. With the exception of Pele and Maradona, who are of course in a class of their own and who represent the absolute zenith of what one can achieve in football, a meeting with the other players soon becomes a talk amongst footballers or amongst colleagues. No different really from a chat with colleagues in the workplace, in the office, in the board room … During a barbecue at Gabriel Batistuta's house, where I was in the company of Pep Guardiola, Frank Leboeuf and Ronald de Boer, we certainly weren't comparing notes on how many matches we had played or how many goals we had scored.
What do you do now and how did you end up in Hong Kong?
I spent three years in Qatar, coaching one of the national youth teams and working as a consultant to the Crown Prince of Qatar (who is also the president of the National Olympic Committee) and the Emir's second son (who is also the president of the Qatar Football Association). Qatar's leaders have a very clear vision on how they want to develop the youth through sports, and it was an absolute privilege working with them. The friendship that I struck up with the Princes continues to this day, and we maintain regular contact about football-related matters. I have nothing but very fond memories of those years in the Gulf. After three years in Qatar I was ready for a new challenge, and decided to come to Hong Kong to teach and to coach football.
Finally, what do you think about Hong Kong football and the development of the game here?
I have been approached a number of times by local clubs who have come to know about my interest in developing the youth. I have of course a lot of experience in setting up youth football development structures, and at some point I would like to get involved.
The standard of football in Hong Kong is not very high - but that's not a secret. Nobody is to blame for this though. Hong Kong needs to think very carefully and very critically about the strengths that it can bring to the game. Youth development structures need to be put in place, and grass roots football needs to become much more important. The government and the Football Association need to invest in the youth, and plan for the long term. Of course it is nice to see one of the Hong Kong clubs qualify for another round of continental competition, but unless there is a structured and a uniform approach to football development, such successes will be due to luck more than to hard work and commitment.
When Holland was lagging behind in world football, they came up with a very simple solution. Let's look at street football - take the basic elements of the little 4 vs 4 games that we used to play in the streets or in the school playground, and let's structure our training and development sessions around these small-sided games. Holland, a country of just about 15 million people, has played in three World Cup finals! Granted, it hasn't won any of them, but we can't ignore the fact that this small country from Western Europe was contesting championship matches when the Brazilians, the English and the Italians had long since gone home.