Tom Saintfiet was just 27 when he first packed his bags for Africa to take command of Côte d'Ivoire side Satellite Abidjan. He could not have known it at the time, but 15 years later the Belgian coach is back on African soil and holding the reins of one of the continent's powerhouse teams, with his sights sets on steering Togo to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
Sealing a World Cup place remains the ultimate dream for the 42-year-old, who narrowly missed out on leading Malawi to Brazil 2014 two years ago. The frustration of that campaign still lingers, but Saintfiet hopes to make up for that disappointment on the road to Russia, even if his side face a stiff test to reach the group stage of qualifying after losing the home leg of their second round tie 1-0 to Uganda.
Saintfiet has become a veritable expert of the African game since his first adventure in his 20s, having coached a quartet of national teams on the continent before accepting the Togo job in May. "I came to Africa to qualify a team for the World Cup," he explained. "That's why I coached Namibia when I was 35. I've progressed step by step and I've learned a lot thanks to African football."
He is optimistic now that the decisive step, and a ticket to Russia, is at hand. "The Togo team has a good standard in Africa, with lots of players based in Europe. They've already played at a World Cup, and coaching this side is a step forward for me because they're at a higher level to the ones I've coached before. Everything's on my side in terms of reaching the World Cup."
Uganda still block their route, of course, and Togo will not be taking their opponents lightly. "They're a good team with a competent coach," said Saintfiet. "They're favourites to qualify because they're 20 places higher than us in the World Ranking. But our goal is to reach the World Cup and that means we have to beat them. We didn't prepare in the best way for this team and a lot of players came back late. I'd have preferred to have the second leg at home because it's not easy to play in Kampala in front of 60,000 spectators. The two games take place over a very short space of time and that doesn't make things easy."
Saintfiet has a clear love for African football and he hopes to use all his experience to aid its development. Above all, he is eager to see an African side one day win the World Cup, though he realises how difficult that will be given the lack of long-term planning.
"I feel like an African coach and I'm proud of that," he said. "My dream is to see African teams be among the best in the world. I'm Belgian and very happy to see my country at the top of the world ranking. It's very interesting to see that a country with 11 million inhabitants can be in that position and have great players like [Romelu] Lukaku, [Eden] Hazard, [Vincent] Kompany and [Marouane] Fellaini in their team.
"That's the approach Africa needs. We have to develop youth teams like in Belgium: if we start training players from the age of four or five at clubs or training centres with qualified coaches, an African country will become world champions one day. Africa doesn't lack talent: African footballers have innate physical and technical abilities."
Considering his attention to the youth game, Saintfiet was naturally encouraged by two African sides reaching the final of the FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015, which Nigeria won by overcoming Mali. Nevertheless, the Togo tactician feels that what matters most now is to continue working hard in order to translate that success to senior World Cup level.
"The presence of two African teams in the final was fantastic," he said. "My only regret is that Mali beat Belgium in the semi-finals, even if we did end up finishing third. But I never had any doubts, because it's not the first time Nigeria won the title. Ghana have won it as well. Those players have to keep progressing together and they'll be able to get good results three years from now.
"The question is whether these players will have the chance to keep developing together in youth teams, and after that the Olympic team and the senior side. If that's the case, I'll be happy to say congratulations for all the great work. It's really fantastic to win a U-17 World Cup, but it's even better to carry on playing together in the senior team in the future."
Saintfiet will undoubtedly be keeping a close eye on how the cream of Africa's youth teams progress, but right now he has more pressing business. Togo have their eye on a berth at the World Cup finals and their Belgian boss is determined to lead them through to the greatest competition in world football.