It’s a weird coincidence but, on the three recent occasions Bafana Bafana have failed to qualify for Afcon, South Africa-born specialist coach Riedoh Berdien has helped another country to reach the continental championships.
The 38-year-old from Cape Town has been credited with helping Gambia reach their maiden Afcon finals, after the Scorpions finished top of their group to confirm their place at the showpiece, which will be staged in Cameroon next year.
Berdien’s latest feat is reminiscent of a similar achievement with Botswana when they qualified for their maiden Afcon in 2012.
He was also part of the technical team of the Togo side that qualified for the 2017 edition.
Berdien, who joined Mamelodi Sundowns as their strength and conditioning coach in November, said he was excited for the people of Gambia, but he was also saddened by the catastrophe that befell Bafana.
“This qualification with Gambia is extremely special because no one gave us a chance during the qualifiers,” Berdien told City Press from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is where Gambia played their final group game on Monday.
“We were in a tough group with Angola, Gabon and the DRC, and to come out as group winners is truly amazing. I feel really excited, but more for the people of Gambia. If you had been in Banjul [the capital of Gambia] at the Independent Stadium, you’d certainly get what I’m talking about. Just to bring joy to other people actually gives you more joy as an individual.”
Berdien has been working as a consultant for the Gambian national team for the past two years, while contracted to Tanzanian club Young Africans.
On Bafana’s failure, he said: “Being in the Safa structure working with Banyana, I can understand the disappointment because we are a football-loving country. It’s a bit disappointing, but we should bounce back from here. I think we should have a little bit of patience.”
Berdien was roped in by Sundowns after the specialist post was left vacant by the highly rated Kabelo “KB” Rangoaga, who followed former head coach Pitso Mosimane to Al Ahly in Egypt.
Berdien also works with Banyana, where he and the team were recently rewarded with the Ministry of Excellence Award for the team’s historic World Cup qualification in France two years ago, as well South Africa’s dominance in the Cosafa Cup.
Sharing the success story on how Gambia reached Cameroon and what he specifically brought into the Scorpions team, Berdien said: “We really came close in the last campaign. We played in a tough group that had Algeria, who ended up being African champions in 2019. This campaign was a reward for the work we’ve done in the past two years.
“What we’ve added to the team is a good fitness structure. We started to manipulate training sessions to accommodate the players and most of them are playing in Europe.
“We are dealing with players such as Omar Colley, who is playing for Sampdoria [in the Italian Serie A]; Musa Barrow, who’s playing for Bologna [also in the Serie A]; and Assan Ceesay [from FC Zürich], who is playing in the top leagues in Europe.
“So we had to basically instil this training methodology into the Gambian national team to add lots of professionalism within the training structure. We managed also to bring in a lot of players who were coming from Europe because, in the past, a lot of players were not really called up.”
Interestingly, Berdien has come a long way with Gambian head coach Tom Saintfiet, whom he previously worked with at Free State Stars in 2014.
The Belgian lasted only 10 games in charge on his debut in the PSL.
Saintfiet and Berdien reunited in the Bangladesh national team and their collaboration continued in the Trinidad and Tobago and, later, Togo national teams.
“He’s an African football coach who understands the culture and the continent well. I understand his methodology. Also, he has the ability to bring the best out of players, especially out of smaller teams,” vouched Berdien.
The 48-year-old Saintfiet was this week rewarded with a new five-year contract following the historic Afcon feat.
Berdien is now back doing club duties and must ensure Sundowns are in tip-top condition as the Brazilians chase glory in local and continental competitions in the coming weeks.
Counting from their Champions league game against Al Hilal on Friday, Sundowns would have played eight matches across all competitions in 26 days.
“Obviously, when a club like Sundowns approaches you to work for them, there is a lot of pressure – but good pressure. It’s a chance for one to be successful both on the domestic and international fronts. Getting the call-up to Sundowns was obviously something massive for me. Sundowns is a big club. They understand football periodisation [systematic planning of training] and methodology very well.”
Berdien, who also had stints at Chippa United and Bloemfontein Celtic, said he does not really see himself as a “replacement” for his predecessor Rangoaga.
“I call KB the boss of fitness coaches in South Africa. The man is irreplaceable. I’m just carrying the baton from where he left off. Working with coaches Manqoba Mngqithi, Rulani Mokwena and Steve Komphela is much easier for me because we understand each other.”