Tale of a Frenchman who has become The African Prince

There were two moments in the 2012 AFCON final between Zambia and Cote D’Ivoire that captured the essence of Hervé Renard’s intense relationship with his players. 

Davies Nkausu had suffered a momentary lapse of concentration. Renard screamed at the defender, wildly beckoned him over and slammed a clenched fist into the right back’s chest as he continued bellowing at him. 

You might expect a player at this level to react angrily. Instead, Nkausu placed a consoling hand on his coach’s shoulder and nodded. It was a fleeting contact, but telling – an acknowledgement that there was nothing personal in Renard’s fury. 

As the players knelt in prayer near the corner flag after Stopilla Sunzu’s decisive penalty had sent the Ivorian keeper clawing at air in the wrong direction, Joseph Musonda was stranded on the bench, an injury having forced him off in tears in his 100th game for Zambia.

But Renard would not allow the prayers to finish without Musonda. He swept him up in his arms and carried the injured defender to his jubilant colleagues. Then he vaulted over the advertising boards, leaving his charges to bask in the glow of victory.  His job for the night was done.

Strikingly, the manner in which he instinctively understood that his place was not to join the immediate celebrations demonstrates the graceful empathy that has allowed him to develop such strong bonds with his players throughout his career.

After all, this was a team that had returned to Gabon, the scene of an epic tragedy that had wiped away an entire generation of national team players some nineteen years earlier. For the kneeling band of players at the corner flag, the victory was both emotional and symbolic given the 1993 Gabon crash.

At a personal level, the suave, handsome Frenchman with the pristine white shirts had in his second spell as the Chipolopolo coach done what others before him had failed to do – win the tournament. 

Before him, Yugoslav Ante Buselic had taken Zambia to the final match in Cairo, Egypt, in 1974 in the country’s maiden appearance at the tournament. A 2-2 draw forced a replay which the World cup bound Leopards of Zaire won 2-0 to consign Zambia to the runners-up spot. 

Twenty years later, a resurgent Zambia defied the odds, reaching the final match in Tunisia barely a year after a plane crash had killed its finest generation of national team players. Led by the late Scot Ian Porterfield, they lost 2-1 to a star-studded World Cup bound Nigeria.

So Renard’s achievement in 2012 resonated for several reasons. First, he separated himself from the number of journeyman coaches from Europe who have overseen African national sides. 

That’s not to say there have not been a few with a proven pedigree. Former England manager Sven Goran Ericson (the Swede is now in China) coached in Italy’s Serie A before leading England to the quarter finals of the 2006 World Cup – and Nigeria to the 2014 tournament in Brazil.

Dutch coach Clemens Wester hoof was in charge of perhaps Nigeria’s finest generation of players (a team that won an Olympics Gold, an Africa Cup trophy in 1994, and reached the knock-out phase at USA ’94). There were others: Renard’s country men, Phillipe Troussier, Henri Michel who coached Tunisia and Morocco, Claude LeRoy (Renard’s mentor) and Bruno Messi, who was coach of Senegal in its famous 1-0 win over France in the World Cup. 

Not forgetting Brazil’s Carlos Alberto Pereira – a World Cup winner yet – who was in charge of the Bafana Bafana side when South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup won by tiki-taka exponents Spain. And Danish coach Roald Poulsen, twice in charge of Zambia (once just after the Gabon tragedy and at the 1996 Africa Cup in South Africa) was a talented coach.

The vast majority of European coaches that have come to Africa have been decidedly less than average. These include Brian Tyler, coach of Zambia when Taifa Stars of Tanzania ejected the then KK 11 via a 2-1 aggregate score in 1979 in the qualifying series for the 1980 Africa Cup tournament won by Nigeria. There was also the German Ted Virba, sacked by Zambia after only a couple of games in the early 1980s – and many more.

To a great extent, Renard’s exploits on the African continent surpasses them all. A man whose strongest attribute is his ability to rally and unify his players, the Frenchman’s love tale with Africa has seen him coach Zambia (twice), Angola, and Cote D’Ivoire.

This is a man who once said of his countrymen that “the problem is there are too many in France”. So perhaps it is no surprise that he has spent less than eight full seasons in two decades of management in his home country. 

Instead he has forged one of the most remarkable careers in the game across seven other countries in two continents, securing his legacy by leading Cote D’Ivoire’s so-called golden generation of Didier Drogba et al to Africa Cup glory in 2015. He is now in charge of Morocco.

After an uneventful playing career as a centre-half spent entirely on the Côte D’Azur, Renard wound up at SC Draguignan in the French lower leagues where he took over as manager after retiring at the age of 30. 

After two promotions in two seasons he was spotted by Claude DeRoy, a man two decades older, known as ‘Papa Claude’ in Avignon, who saw beneath the stylish exterior of an immaculately dressed youngster a tenacious determination. Together they went to China to manage Shanghai Cosco with Renard as assistant, until they were persuaded to swap Shanghai for East Anglia to coach Cambridge United in 2004.

Despite becoming the only foreign coach to win the African Cup of Nations with more than one nation – something not even his great mentor LeRoy could manage – it has not always been a glorious path for Renard. His first stint as Zambia manager and the bizarre episode at Cambridge had come either side of a brief fling in charge of Vietnamese side Song Da Nam Dinh and a two-year spell avoiding relegation from the French third tier with AS Cherbourg. 

After leaving the Chipolopolo in 2010 he had a few months at the helm of Angola, which preceded half a season with USM Alger before returning to guide Zambia to the AFCON title.

When he was appointed manager of struggling Sochaux in October 2013, he had a real task on his hands. Not only did he have to adapt from the totally different pace of life as an international coach, he was also tasked with saving a side who were rock bottom of Ligue 1 with only seven points from their opening 12 matches. Renard applied the only approach he knew – his own.

After recruiting wisely by bringing in unfancied players – including Nathan Sinkala and Stoppila Sunzu from his historic Zambia side – Renard showed his men he was ready for the fight by regularly joining them in the gym and eating with them on match days. In a short behind the scenes documentary by Canal+, he was seen jogging vigorously through the town leaving the cameraman in his wake, while briefly pausing to admire the stunning views – a microcosm of the tense journey he was on.

But the stint with Sochaux went awry, with the team relegated from Ligue 1. And Renard’s African adventure continued when he led Cote D’Ivoire to an AFCON trophy triumph. He was to return to his homeland to take charge of Lille in the summer of 2015, only to depart again after only 13 matches, and failing to galvanise the team with his frequent tactical changes during the opening weeks.

Given that he is not adept at very offensive football, Renard’s tactics have not won him many admirers in France. His preference is a very cautious approach – and an eye for switching tactics. For example, when he led the Ivorians at AFCON last year, he played a 3-5-2 formation in the quarter final against Algeria, having used the 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 systems in the group matches.

Earlier this year, he took over as coach of Morocco, and promptly beat Africa’s top ranked nation at the time – Cape Verde Islands – home and away in his first two matches. Morocco became the first country to qualify for next year’s AFCON in Gabon.

 

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