Interview - African Cup of Nations

From hauling bins to CAN final, Zambia coach Hervé Renard speaks

Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics Michael Phelps had the music of Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy surging through his iPod earphones as he strode towards the starting blocks and went on to win a record eight gold medals in the pool. For Zambia coach Hervé Renard the soundtrack on the way to the biggest match of his coaching career will be the trundling of dustbins.


“When I started my life as a coach I was running my own company cleaning the communal parts of buildings,” he explained. “I used to get up at 3.00am for five days a week to do it. Putting out the bins was part of the deal.

“I’ll remember those moments before the game against Côte d’Ivoire. It was a difficult time.”

Eight years of hauling refuse around at dawn are far behind him now. And at 43 the Frenchman has Africa ’s most glittering football prize on the horizon.

His Zambia team must overcome Côte d’Ivoire who entered the tournament as favourites. They were supposed to meet Ghana in Sunday night’s final. But Zambia skewered that prediction with a 1-0 win in Wednesday’s semi-final.

Ghana will have to wait a little longer for their first trophy since 1982.

The Ivorians have been thirsting for the cup since 1992. The players, led by Didier Drogba, are considered to be the country’s golden generation. But they risk going down in the annals as the nearly men.

Côte d’Ivoire lost in the final to Egypt in 2006 and were beaten by the same opponents in 2008 in the semi-finals and were eliminated in the quarter-finals two years ago by Algeria.

“I want my team to play and leave nothing behind," Renard says. "Many of these Ivorian players know what it’s like to lose a final. I don’t want to be in that situation. I don’t want to hear people saying ‘Well played!’. I want to hear people talking about how we won.”

Dossier: Africa Cup of Nations 2012

It will be a sizeable task. But Renard styles himself as a man who likes a challenge.

“When I was a coach at Cambridge United, it was one of the most difficult times in my life. I didn’t speak English and I didn’t get an interpreter so that was tough but I got stronger.”

The stint in 2004 at the third division side in England lasted seventh months. Renard returned to France where he coached Cherbourg, also in their country's third. Claude Le Roy plucked him from the wilderness in 2007 to help oversee the Ghana team.

As assistant head coach to the Frenchman, Renard had his first taste of African football.

“We arrived in Ghana just after training camp in Abu Dhabi. About 6,000 people were waiting for the team. It was amazing. I’d never seen this before and then I decided that I wanted to be coach of a national team in Africa and participate in many Africa Cup of Nations.”

The 2012 competition has been his third in all and his second as head coach. Whatever the result on Sunday, his stock has risen.

“My path has been up and down,” he reflected. “It’s not always easy because when you don’t have a name you have to take somewhere more difficult than people with names. They are able to start somewhere immediately at a higher level but perhaps it’s a good thing as you get stronger mentally.”

The feature of his Zambia side has been its resilience and organisation as they’ve confounded supposedly stronger teams such as Senegal in the opening game in Bata three weeks ago and most notably Ghana .

“I was 15 when I signed my first contract with Cannes and I remember how lucky I was to start in the academy there,” Renard recalls. “I met some fantastic players. Arsène Wenger was coach of the academy and Jean-Marc Guillou, the coach of the first team. Afterwards there was Jean Fernandez, Guy Lacombe and Claude [Le Roy]. All fantastic people and when they were talking I concentrated and listened to these people.”

But the strand between absorbing the ideas of the savants and executing them is often fragile.

In Zambia Renard has been blessed with the good fortune of having Kalusha Bwalya as president of the football association.

The 48-year-old is acknowledged as Zambia ’s greatest player and after Zambia ’s first round exit in Ghana four years ago, Bwalya advocated a policy of patiently developing a group of players under one coach.

An appearance in the quarter-finals in Angola two years ago under Renard vindicated that stance and a place in the final should be the conclusive endorsement.

Bwalya was also the man who led the Zambia team to the 1994 final less than a year after 18 Zambian players died in a plane crash just outside Libreville airport.

Bwalya only escaped the tragedy because he was making his own way to the World Cup qualifier in Senegal from Europe, where he was playing for PSV Eindhoven.

Renard was among the Zambian players and staff who visited the crash site on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean three days before the match against Côte d’Ivoire.

Aware of the poignancy of a final in the Gabonese capital, Renard has been shrewd to tap into the emotion.

“It was a dream to come and play in Gabon and now all the Zambian people are dreaming of the same thing,"  he declares. “But it will be a tough game against Côte d’Ivoire . We’re very far from them on a one-to-one level but we were very far from Ghana too.

“If you start looking at the Ivorian names - Drogba, Saloman Kalou, Yaya Toué, Gervinho – you’re not going to want to play. You see them on TV every week. You’re going to want to forfeit the game. But we’re going in with the honour of representing Zambia .

“The team is in front of a mountain but we’ve got so much determination that we’re not afraid of going to the top.”

At well over six foot tall with an imposing physique, Renard has the stature to make even the most courageous critic think twice before jeering at Zambia ’s chances.

But the man who used to rise at the crack of dawn to run his business before going onto his job as a coach would be unlikely to resort to violence. He’d probably have one word only for such an attitude.


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