Ben Manga: Scouting is all about the little things

Former Schalke president Günter Siebert was known for his knack of spotting gems. Ben Manga also fits this description, as well as being renowned for his ability to find hidden talent and up-and-coming players. He is simply an all-rounder. The new director of squad planning, scouting and the Knappenschmiede youth academy is not a fan of these buzzwords, but is making the best of them.

The afternoon sun shines over the VELTINS-Arena. Deep within the stadium, Manga explores his new home. Apart from some sneaky scouting missions, it’s only his second time here, after the home game against St. Pauli. Now, he takes a look at the partially-open pitch and moves further behind the scenes. The quietly-spoken 50-year-old lets his work do the talking. As soon as the conversation gets to the nitty-gritty of his occupation though, he moves into full flow and really brings it to life.

Discovering Rodrigo Zalazar

One of his discoveries took place right here two years ago. There are so many different legendary stories in football, but what would have happened if Rodrigo Zalazar hadn’t sent S04 back to the Bundesliga with his winner against St. Pauli? It doesn’t bear thinking about. The Uruguayan would never have even come to Germany if a certain scout hadn’t been at the South American U20 Championship in Chile. The young talent on the pitch was spotted by Ben Manga and Eintracht Frankfurt. The rest is history.

Bienvenido ‘Ben’ Manga-Ubengas was born in 1974 in Equatorial Guinea, and grew up in Neuss. His own playing career was forced to end before it really got going. Three Bundesliga games with Fortuna Düsseldorf in the mid-90s were followed by three serious knee injuries. A natural left-back who was also comfortable in attack, the highlight of his playing career came as a 21-year-old in a DFB-Pokal win over a Bayern München team containing Kahn and Klinsmann, when Manga was named man of the match. One round later though, he was involved in a disastrous encounter with Chemnitzer FC’s Jens Melzig. “He completely broke both my medial and lateral meniscus,” remembers Manga. “That was the start of my problems.” Then came the fractures, and in the end the doctor simply said: “Mr. Manga, that’s it for you.”

This kind of news takes some time to digest and leads to a shifting of perspectives. “As a young player with the cash rolling in, you feel like a king – and you can’t deal with setbacks. It really affects you.” That was it. No one phoned and he was no longer recognised out on the street. The now-scout and youth coach Ben Manga will never forget that. That’s why he always makes sure to tell his academy players: “You have talent, my friend, but you have to work every day and be glad that you’re fit and healthy. And never forget where you come from!” On a work trip to Colombia, he saw sights that one would never see in Germany. “The boys sometimes play barefoot there. And here, some people complain if the pitch isn’t perfectly mown or the shower is too cold. In South America, they didn’t have showers, only enjoyment and determination on the football pitch. It really pays to experience something like that and pass the experience on to people at home.”

As a young player with the cash rolling in, you feel like a king – and you can’t deal with setbacks. It really affects you.

Ben Manga

After the end of his playing career in the early 2000s, Manga started down a new path. He became a youth coach and scout at Alemannia Aachen, and found a mentor in sporting director Jörg Schmadtke. After a spell with TSG Hoffenheim, he arrived at VfB Stuttgart where he met Fredi Bobic. In 2016, the two took on a mission impossible in Frankfurt –making something out of not a lot.

Manga gets Frankfurt back on course

Eintracht found themselves mired in treacherous waters, and the Hessians only narrowly avoided sinking into the murky depths of the 2. Bundesliga after coming through a play-off against 1. FC Nürnberg. By the time the summer transfer window came around, it appeared the ship had sprung a leak. Manga was set a modest budget of €2.2 million for his summer signings, but after presenting Bobic with a shortlist of candidates, each costing around that amount, he was stopped in his tracks. “Fredi gave it a read and said: ‘The €2.2 million is for all of them.’” Looking back on it, Manga laughs: “I thought he was having me on. We were talking about the Bundesliga. He might as well have been saying: ‘Show me a magic trick…’”

And Manga began to work his magic. As chief scout, he assembled an international team, including Raffael Tonello, now head of S04’s academy and youth scouting. Despite the financial restrictions imposed upon him at Frankfurt, many of Manga’s acquisitions would quickly make a name for themselves at the club, including Ante Rebic, Sébastien Haller and Luka Jovic, dubbed the ‘herd of buffaloes’ by the media. The attacking trio went on to net Eintracht a profit of around €85 million by the time they left the club, while Randal Kolo Muani – snapped up by Manga after seeing him in action for Nantes – earned the club €95 million for his move to PSG after joining Frankfurt on a free transfer. Eintracht’s squad skyrocketed in value in just a couple of years, and the team won the DFB-Pokal and UEFA Europa League, establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with in Germany.

Seeing potential before the opposition

Being quicker than others is Manga’s modus operandi – finding hidden gems, spotting potential stars before the competition, and researching which well-known players are currently flying under the radar. The days Schalke’s new man will spend at home in Düsseldorf are set to be few and far between, as he divides his time as a scout between data analysis and watching players in stadia across the country. Both elements are crucial to a successful scouting operation, and there are always likely to be debates on the weighting of the two, but Manga places a clear emphasis on being out there in the field, experiencing players live in their natural surroundings, which can sometimes reveal talents no-one else has on their shortlist. Rebic and Jovic are two such examples, recalls Manga. The numbers were not particularly promising before the pair joined Eintracht, but after seeing the players in person, that data could be used to complete the picture. The rest is history.

No chance without a team.

Ben Manga

Manga knows that scouting is also a matter of balancing head and heart. He never tires of highlighting the “outstanding team” supporting him in his work. “Otherwise, it would never have been possible. Without a network, we’d have no chance.” But despite his expert scouting team, Manga aims to see up to “98%” of the players himself before making a decision: “I’m a bit particular about that as well. Although the scouts are great, there’s sometimes a slight feeling that maybe you should take another look.” While travelling the stadiums of the world, Manga makes little effort to disguise himself – “If you’re being talked at from all sides, you stop paying attention to the little things. And scouting is all about picking up on those little things.”

Sometimes potential signings will fall through the cracks, because those small details can cause major problems further down the line. “Hard work beats talent,” Manga is keen to stress. When he sees a player fail to track back after losing the ball, he has a dilemma: “You could drum that into his head, but would the player even want that?” he asks himself. “If someone thinks he’s better than everyone else, I won’t bring him on board, even if he’s good. At the end of the day, this is a team sport.” It is for that exact reason that he wants to keep an eye on everything himself – so that when the time comes, he can say with conviction: “That’s what we’re going to do.”

Not a fan of social media

Manga is fully aware that not all of the many signings he’s made in his time have paid off, but has certainly learned from those that haven’t been as successful, which is why he’s so well known for identifying hidden gems and spotting up-and-coming talents. Manga is, however, quite averse to the world of social media, in particular when he happens to be the subject of a post. The 50-year-old has “unfortunately” become well-versed in some of the terminology used on these platforms. Nevertheless, Manga is keen to view the publicity as an acknowledgement of his success, because, ultimately, it proves that he’s doing something right. “You win some, you lose some. Luckily, I’ve won more times than I’ve lost so far,” he explained, smiling.

Schalke 04 has been a team of interest in the eyes of Manga for a long time now. “The club is magical: the Arena, the old Parkstadion – there’s just something about them. Wherever you go in the world, you see someone in a S04 shirt. This club is what football’s all about, and I’m thrilled that I get to be a part of it.” Manga was approached by many other teams after his departure from English Championship side Watford FC, but he had his heart set on Schalke: “What sold it for me was how passionate Matthias Tillmann, Marc Wilmots and Axel Hefer were about having me on board,” explained the scout. After engaging in a series of talks with the club, he came to the conclusion that: “Schalke is the place for me.” Manga is eager to witness his players display sportsmanship and determination in every game, or as he puts it, “passion, passion, and more passion.”

The 50-year-old has been closely following S04’s games ever since he first established contact with the club, and has his sights set first and foremost on strengthening the squad ahead of the upcoming season. The former professional footballer will work in close collaboration with sporting director Marc Wilmots, where he’ll make important decisions along with other experts in the field. Manga is thrilled to be reunited with his former teammate Raffael Tonello, alongside whom he will form a top-class duo with at the Royal Blues. “He’s an asset to the club and will help us reach a whole new level. The Knappenschmiede is very, very important. We’ll ensure that an abundance of players are able to make that step up into first-team football.”

Manga remarked on how the current situation at S04 is reminiscent of the way Eintracht Frankfurt looked when he took the job there back in 2016, and is convinced that he’s capable of leaving his mark in Gelsenkirchen as he did at the Bundesliga side. Before heading into the team’s changing room on his tour of the ground, Manga revealed that he already has a number of talents on his radar. Elsewhere in the Arena, staff had started working on the preparations for the upcoming AC/DC concert, which coincidently is for their album entitled “Power Up” – appropriate, right?


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