Interview with Stefano Cusin, the Italian globetrotter who’s on a quest in Africa

In an interview as the head coach of the South Sudan National Football Team, globetrotting Italian manager Stefano Cusin opens up on his experiences around the world, his beliefs, and his love for challenge in a country still struggling in the aftermath of an independence struggle and civil war.

Stefano Cusin: The Football Nomad
Art by Shivani Khot

For most of a playing career that lasted more than two decades, James Moga was—measured against a global scale—a nondescript striker playing in nondescript teams. Perhaps a more charitable way of describing him is as a journeyman footballer who played for fourteen clubs in six countries.
And yet it was not a career without remarkable moments.

There were league titles, promotions, and cup successes peppered throughout. But any player can boast of those. Not many, however, will have experienced anything like the highlights of Moga’s career that came on July 10, 2011, when he scored the first goal in the history of the South Sudan national team in a friendly against Kenyan Premier League side Tusker, and the other a year later, when he scored again in their official debut against Uganda. To this day, he is considered one of his country’s best players.

However, the mere fact that he still remains South Sudan’s top scorer with six goals in eighteen games says a lot about football in the country. Twice the youngest African nation has made it to the qualifying group stage of the Africa Cup of Nations, but the results there have been largely dismal: 11 defeats and just one win.

That, however, does not mean that they don’t have big dreams. When their last qualification journey came to an end, the South Sudan Football Association began looking for a new coach, and ultimately their choice fell on the Italian Stefano Cusin.

“My previous two jobs hadn’t gone well for me; I was in the right leagues but at the wrong club,” Cusin explains as his side prepares to take on Djibouti in Uganda (a game they would win the game 1-0). “After those two bad experiences, I was looking for a project, so when a French agent told me that South Sudan were looking for a coach to look after not only the main national team but also all the youth categories, I was immediately interested.”

He went into the job with a clear understanding of what he was getting into, an understanding that included seeing firsthand where he would be working and, importantly for Cusin, the people he would be working with.

“I then spoke with the president [Gen. Augustino Maduot] first online, and eventually, I made a trip to Juba, the capital of South Sudan,” he recounts. The way he says this drives home the belief that this was the only way to determine whether this was the job for him. “I saw the stadium, the facilities, and met the people, and I understood that they are good people who want to work, to improve and build something.”

He adds: “I like the challenge.” The steeliness in his voice leaves little doubt. “It was exactly what I was looking for, even though the country is not easy.”

That the country is not easy is something of an understatement. The reality is that South Sudan’s recent history has been horrific. A war that spanned almost half a century left more than two million dead and displaced another four million. Independence from Sudan brought some relief, but that was all too brief as the country soon fell into more infighting. That civil war ended a few years back, and the situation has improved, but even so, there are still millions who are at risk of starvation.

There is no clearer indication of the brutality of the conflicts this country has suffered than one stark statistic: seventy percent of South Sudan’s population is younger than thirty. Older people have either been wiped out or left the country for good.

The struggle for independence and the subsequent civil war has also resulted in a country severely lacking in infrastructure and with no discernible economy—a country that relies heavily on foreign aid.
Inevitably, the football situation is just as bleak. After almost five decades from its inauguration, the 12,000-capacity Juba Stadium was demolished in 2019 with the ambition to replace it with a FIFA-financed new structure that could hold 19,000. Three years on, however, work still has to be completed. It is a situation that Cusin describes matter-of-factly.

“In South Sudan, there is a lack of infrastructure,” he says. “Although there is work on a new national stadium, we only have one field for training, and it is also used for all Premier League games; everyone plays on an artificial pitch. So it is not easy.”

The game in Uganda should have been a home game. It is the same every time they have home fixtures—playing overseas in empty stadia instead of being able to rely on their own fans; another hurdle that the team and Cusin have to deal with.

However, the Italian would not be coaching in a country like South Sudan if he were one to let matters like lack of adequate facilities discourage him. Instead, he looks for the positive where others would see only gloom: “At the same time, they want to work, they want to grow, they want to give an identity to this national team. That makes it a very exciting job.”

Not many would share such a view of this job. Cusin’s ability to find joy in the challenge is both powerful and uplifting. Of course, that is also because he went into this job with a clear idea of how to build his squad. That included not prejudging anyone’s ability or making any rash assumptions about players who were still playing in the domestic league as opposed to those who had gone to play overseas.

“The first thing that I did when I took on the job was to check out the national league to see all the games played so as to watch each team three or four times until I have a good idea of the local talent,” he says. “Then I watched the last ten games of the national team to gain an understanding of the players.”

Naturally, for a country with as big a diaspora as South Sudan, it is vital to follow up on any players who might be eligible. To do so, Cusin had one benefit: “Four scouts,” he explains, “who I asked to check out any player across the world who could play for South Sudan. That is how we started.”

It is a situation that any national team manager will be familiar with, although, given his limited resources, Cusin probably feels it more than most. Perhaps that is why he believes that talent is only part of the equation when looking at a player, and recent selections have seen him omit some players considered key.

“We still regularly check out potential talent,” he says. “When we spot someone who could be good for us, I do a deep dive on them, watch videos of their games, and then meet up with them to get a better feel of the individual. Then, in each training camp, I try to bring in four or five new players. This not only gives me an idea about the quality of the players but also what kind of men they are.”

Character is every bit as important to him as talent. A player who is willing to learn and sacrifice himself for the team will always be the one that he favours.

“It is not an easy job, but that is the challenge. That is what I enjoy,” he says, even though there is no need for him to put it into words; his CV screams of it. A box-to-box midfielder who spent most of his career playing for lower league sides in France, Switzerland, Italy, and Central America, Cusin initially took a traditional route into coaching by starting within the youth structures of Arezzo and Montevarchi. Then came a sudden shift.

The catalyst for Cusin to look for opportunities in the African continent was a World Cup. “I spent eight years in Italy going through the various age categories from under-12 to under-18,” he says. “But I got to a point where I was really thinking about Africa. The Senegal team of the 2002 World Cup really inspired me, and I realised that if you could work with these players, they could achieve something special.” Slowly, that realisation became something of a mission for him. Opportunities quickly followed.

“I started looking more closely at African football,” he says, “and an opportunity arose to go to Cameroon to work with the federation. From there, I moved to the Congo, where I was the national team technical director and had the experience of seeing the team win the Africa U20 Cup of Nations, which was a great experience. That was a very important step for me.” One from which he never looked back.

His career has seen him earn experiences in Bulgaria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Cyprus, and South Africa. Breaking that pattern was a stint at Wolves in 2016, where he was Walter Zenga’s assistant.

“We met the first time in 2008,” Cusin recalls, speaking with great fondness about the former Inter and Italy goalkeeper. “I was coaching Botev Plovdiv, and an agent put me in touch because Zenga was looking to set up a friendly game for the Qatar national team that he was managing. We played very well and afterwards kept in touch.

“When I left Plovdiv, I moved to Al-Ittihad in Libya, where I won the league and cup. Soon afterwards, Walter got in touch because he had landed a big job in Saudi Arabia with Al-Nassr and needed someone to be his coach. Seeing that I had done so well in Libya, he was confident that I would know how to handle the players; that I would understand the mentality.”

Despite all that he had achieved in his career until that point, the opportunity to work closely with someone of Zenga’s experience and reputation was unmissable. “For me, it was an unbelievable opportunity,” Cusin says. “To work so closely with someone of his calibre and experience changed how I viewed the game. I can say that today a lot of what I do is based on our discussions and what I learned from him.”

Cusin worked as Zenga’s assistant for five years, with the spell at Wolves being the last one where the two were together. There is a tinge of regret when he speaks of their time at Molineux. “We were at the right team, in the right league with the right board, but at the wrong moment because we signed our contract on a Monday, and the league kicked off the following Saturday. In the Championship, you play every three days, and if you don’t have the right pre-season, it becomes very difficult.”

In the end, their stay was a brief one, with the duo sacked after eighty-seven days, during which they won just four out of fourteen games. Despite this, Cusin still calls it “a beautiful experience”.

“We did reasonably well,” he notes. “We won the derby, we beat Benitez’s Newcastle away 2-0 and had good results. In England, the stadia are always full, there is a lot of passion, and we worked in great conditions. Unfortunately, the problem was that a lot of players that we had weren’t good enough to meet the club’s ambitions.”

For all his fond memories and eulogies of the time in England, one of Cusin’s true career highlights came during a spell in Palestine.

In 2014, his hunger to experience as many aspects of the game of football as possible tempted him to take the job at Ahli al-Khaleel, the smaller of the two Hebron sides. The team was in disarray when he joined, but he quickly shaped them up and, in the space of eight months, led them to three trophies: the Palestine League Cup, the Palestinian Cup, and the Super Cup.

His rewards, however, extended beyond those successes. Working there touched him on a human level. “Palestine is a country that is under occupation,” he elaborates, “and football is the only moment that they are really free. They want to learn, they want to work, and that is always the ideal situation for me because that is also what I like to do. I love to be out on the pitch, helping the players improve.”

It proved to be the perfect storm with Cusin’s missionary zeal to teach and the players’ drive to learn combining to incredible effect.

“We did a great job,” he summarises. “I believe that we changed football in Palestine because from that moment on, the national team started to improve. I won’t say that it was down to what we did, but there were a lot of coaches coming to see how we worked, and my fitness coach introduced a lot of new ideas to them.

“It was a beautiful experience. To this day, I am still in touch with a lot of people from my time in Palestine. And that’s great. Sport isn’t only about winning but about building new relationships and, also, so that when you leave the country, you feel that you’ve managed to leave something behind.”

It is that desire to improve conditions wherever he goes that keeps Cusin going. As a graduate of the world-famous Coverciano, he has confidence in his abilities. “I come from Italy, where we have a great football culture, so I think we can do well wherever we go,” he says confidently. That, however, is not enough. Not even close.”

“If you go to a new country and try to work exactly as we do in Italy, then it would not work,” he points out. “Before you even start working you have to understand the country, understand the mentality, learn what has been tried in the past, get a feel of what habits there are, what the food is like; a lot of details like that.”

That is the starting point of his approach. “At first, I just watch to see how they typically act and then slowly introduce my methods to bring the players on board,” he says. “And then, if you communicate your ideas and if you are open-minded, the players will understand that and will be eager to work with you.” It is a delicate dance, but one that Cusin clearly relishes.

This is also wisdom borne of experience, of which Cusin now has plenty. “Another thing, for me, is that I don’t bring in too many people from outside with me on the coaching staff,” he continues, expounding more of his philosophies. “I prefer to use local people. They can give you a lot of information and help you understand things better.”

Stefano Cusin: a football nomad, a man on a mission…

When Stefano Cusin left his country for a job in Cameroon back in 2003, there probably were those who felt he would find himself back in Italy sooner or later. Almost twenty years later, that still hasn’t happened. Although there’s no guessing what the future may hold, Cusin is perfectly happy coaching in places like South Sudan, where he can truly dream big.

“I don’t have specific ambitions,” he says. “I thank God every day when I am on the training pitch. That is what makes me happy. From the very beginning, my dream was always to get to the World Cup with an African team. It was a dream; now it can be a target.”

What about coaching in Italy? “Certainly, I don’t have an ambition to coach in the Serie A,” he says. “I know that is what many others want to achieve, but it is not for me. I prefer to work abroad, to meet new people, and build different experiences. Then when I am old, I will have many stories to tell to my grandchildren!”

Cusin is an ambitious man, but what drives him is an inexhaustible desire to coach the game rather than the need for fame. He can look back at his career so far and remember the faces of those whose lives he has changed through his coaching and the positivity with which he views the world. He is a true football nomad, one who has been trekking across Africa, working tirelessly to see this continent fulfill its football potential.

Undoubtedly there are easier jobs that he could do, but where’s the fun in that?

Paul Grech

Always curious. Mostly, I think, read and write on football.