This feature is part of The Masterminds series
For a horrible moment, Stoppila Sunzu’s foot slipped. A huge chunk of Gabonese turf was dislodged from near the penalty spot as his body slipped backwards awkwardly, and a whole continent gasped – but then pure elation erupted. His decisive strike, Zambia’s ninth in the 2012 African Cup of Nations final shootout, hit the top corner and ignited a swarm of utter pandemonium as his teammates raced to join him. After a few moments the Chipolopolo players kneeled in a circle near the corner flag to offer their thanks to God and to remember their nation’s greatest sporting tragedy in prayer. But one man was still missing.
In his 100th appearance for his country, Joseph Musonda had been forced off early on through injury and was unable to walk by himself from the bench, but suddenly he was swept up by a powerful figure in a pristine fitted white shirt. His manager refused to let the prayers finish without every one of his squad taking part, and carried the stricken man all the way before vaulting the advertising boards and leaving his players to lap up the limelight. While Africa rejoiced at one of the unlikeliest stories, Hervé Renard knew his job for the night was done.
Cambridge United don’t have a long history of suave, handsome Frenchmen at the helm. Nor do they tend to fire managers who go on to leave an indelible mark on an entire continent; then again, there is very little that is outwardly conventional about Hervé Renard. This is a man who once said of his countrymen that “the problem is there are too many in France”, so perhaps it is not such a surprise that he has spent less than five full season in nearly 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 as the Prince of Africa – something he had to do the hard way.
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When Renard arrived in East Anglia after a spell in China he was a complete unknown to English supporters. 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 a man two decades older, known as ‘Papa Claude’ in Avignon, who saw beneath the stylish exterior of an immaculately dressed youngster and was impressed by his 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 in 2004
This time, however, the arrangement was different. Renard took a more hands on role by taking training while his mentor was officially the man in charge, providing his vast experience predominantly on matchdays. Despite his precocious managerial age Renard already possessed a singular mindset, but was not put out by having an older hand looking over his shoulder – for this was not just anyone guiding him.
Papa Claude was a man after his own heart with “shoes of wind” who had ventured down the path that he himself would soon take, deep into the continent that Pelé once predicted would provide a future World Cup winner, and who would provide him with arguably his greatest influence. If Renard was to become the Prince of Africa, then Claude LeRoy was surely the King.
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Renard is an affable, intelligent man off the pitch, but aggressive and determined on it
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While all great managers served their apprenticeship before reaching the heights of their careers, few have done so in two such wildly contrasting locations as one of the world’s largest mega cities and Cambridge. Not that even the young Frenchman himself could have predicted the riches that lay in store for him through the outlandish rhetoric that the U’s chairman Gary Harwood spewed forth in presenting his Gallic duo, but he had found the perfect guide.
Over half a century in football has given LeRoy a vast bank of experience and countless successes to call upon, but it is not his record alone that affords him the position of footballing royalty. Before being appointed head coach of Togo in early April this year, his astonishing career had seen him take charge of eight international sides including five in Africa – all of whom he has taken to the knockout stages of the African Cup of Nations at least once. It is his character that endures most of all, and which has impacted upon Renard most significantly.
While LeRoy is far from the first European coach to build a career on the continent, he has differed from the overwhelming majority of his fellow foreign coaches by integrating himself into the culture of each country, first and foremost by insisting on living in the country that employs him, something that Renard himself has adopted. “He looks up to LeRoy because of the way he embeds himself in the nation he’s coaching in,” Maher Mezahi, a North African football specialist, told me. “Renard lived in Zambia and Côte D’Ivoire; he doesn’t like European coaches collecting a paycheque and only coming down for matches.”
The tired cliché used to be that African players were full of athleticism and talent but lacked basic tactical instruction that only a European could successfully offer, but that experience and knowledge alone has always been woefully insufficient to succeed in the long term, something both master and protégé implicitly understand.
Both men have mastered the seemingly effortless but essential art of communication, which has laid the foundations of their remarkable achievements. “Whatever the job, you have to bring all your character, your passion and always be the same coach for yourself,” Le Roy told The Guardian ahead of his then-side Congo’s derby against their Democratic Republic namesakes last year. “But you are never the same man for 23 players. You are 23 times a different coach to them depending on the background, the socio-cultural education of the player – their culture, their life, their footballing habits. You have to be clever and smart, and manage a player depending on his sensibilities. That’s what I am passionate about.
“Point by point, some faces, some smiles, some eyes – if you have good relations you don’t forget them. I love this continent and the people.”
The importance of pastoral care he eulogies over is married with a steely self-confidence to demand total control over operations. “Since the first day in Africa, everybody understood that if I cannot work how I want, I was ready to take the first plane back. Nobody can force me to do anything.”
Finding that balance has been the secret to his success, something very few men have been able to accomplish and which Renard is a committed disciple of. Others have created new tactical innovations or even whole philosophies, but LeRoy was a mastermind in the truest sense of the word; he mastered the minds of his players, but most of all his own, to become possibly the most adaptable coach in world football.
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Against all the odds, Renard took Zambia to the AFCON title
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Renard’s esteem of the mental side of management is equally profound. After Sunzu’s winning penalty he showed all the sensitivity of a doting parent, but during the match itself he was as animated and aggressive as Diego Simeone or Jürgen Klopp. One moment in particular encapsulated what makes him such a mastermind. In a fit of fury he wildly screamed at Davies Nkausu, who was only a few metres away, for a lapse in concentration. The right-back’s expression was one of admission, but Renard had not finished: he bellowed at his man to ‘come here’ as if he were an errant schoolboy and slammed a powerful clenched fist into his chest as he continued delivering his powerful rebuke.
One might understandably expect a professional footballer to react in kind to a ferocious burst such as the one Renard had unleashed. Instead Nkausu, without flinching, rested his hand on his manager and grasped his shoulder, as if to reassure him that he’d accepted and understood the message. The contact was brief but telling – there was nothing personal or insulting about the delivery from Renard, but the depth of emotion told the story of his philosophy. “I do think that his strength is unifying his side,” Mezahi continues. “His players love him and he’s so fiery like many of his contemporaries. It’s especially important in tournament play as opposed to the league, which is more of a marathon.”
The tournament had, however, been tinged with sadness. Only a few kilometres from the venue of the final was the site of the tragic disaster that claimed the lives of 18 members of the hugely promising 1993 Zambia squad that had thrashed Italy at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. On the second leg of four en route to Senegal, the 18 year-old de Havilland aircraft crashed into the Atlantic Ocean just off shore, killing all crew members and passengers on board.
When Renard returned with his soon-to-be victorious squad nearly two decades later, he paid his respects in a dignified fashion despite being consumed with pride at having won his first international trophy. 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 charges throughout his career.
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Three years later he was back as the boss of powerhouses Ivory Coast, and this time the mood was very different. The pent-up frustration of such a talented group of players – who had lost to Renard’s Zambia in Gabon – after failing to win their continental title, despite numerous near misses, was released after they eventually won an AFCON final penalty shootout at the third time of asking.
The Ivorian celebrations were full of dancing and laughter as their manager took centre stage, stripped to the waist and leading the celebrations in front of the fans, his players following his every move. At one point he even hoisted birthday cake aficionado Yaya Touré on his shoulder and carried him across the pitch, even though a week earlier he had criticised his captain’s contribution in the early stages of the competition.
Despite becoming the only foreign coach to win the African Cup of Nations with more than one nation – something not even his great mentor Claude 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.
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Renard’s time at Lille highlighted his struggles in cracking European club football
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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 matchdays. 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.
As the season wound down to its nail-biting denouement, Renard’s revolution had accrued the league’s tenth-best points per game average, but still needed a win on the last day of the season against Evian, who were just a point ahead, to survive. Before the match itself, Renard can be heard screaming with all his might in the dressing room demanding that his players never give up; it could have seemed as if he had lost control to an outsider, but Renard was simply switching the mood to his preferred setting at the crucial moment.
As the third unanswered Evian goal went in, Renard could do nothing. On the pitch after the final whistle he went to congratulate his opposite number Pascal Dupraz, and left him with a warning that he would be back the following season: he did return, but only after the glorious sojourn with Ivory Coast. At the start of this season he took charge of Lille, but departed after only 13 matches having failed to galvanise a squad which had lost Divock Origi and Salomon Kalou, as they stumbled to 16th place by early November.
Renard was in danger of losing credibility in his homeland, but his spells at French clubs have not been universally viewed as a complete disaster. “I would say he has actually done OK in France rather than failed,” says James Eastham, a French football scout and writer for FourFourTwo and When Saturday Comes. “It’s fair to say [Sochaux] would have achieved a comfortable mid-table finish had he been in charge for the entire season.
“His appointment as Lille manager in the summer of 2015 seemed a smart one. The club were looking for a fresh start under an energetic new manager and Renard seemed a good choice, but the club’s transfer market decision were found wanting. They signed three young strikers (Baptiste Guillaume, Junior Tallo and Sehrou Guirassy) but it quickly became apparent none was strong enough to lead the line every week. Without a top-class striker Lille were unable to win games and suddenly Renard was vulnerable.”
His successor, Frédéric Antonetti, has staged staged a remarkable recovery, steering Lille to top-half security, begging the question why Renard was unable to achieve the same. “His frequent tactical changes during the opening weeks of the season appeared to confuse rather than improve the players,” continued Eastham. “Understandable, but he arguably deserved longer.”
His tactical approach has not always won him admirers, especially on the domestic front; safety first is his underlying credo, with physical conditioning a high priority. He keeps himself in excellent condition, going for runs almost every day and doing push-ups alongside men half his age without shaming himself.
“He’s not adept at very offensive football,” says Lotfi Wada, and African football writer and radio journalist. “He prefers a very cautious approach of football. But on the other side he has shown that he doesn’t stick to his tactics; for instance in the AFCON quarter final against Algeria last year he played a 3-5-2 system – having used used a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 in the group stages – as he knew that Algeria would have difficulties against this system. That for me shows his tactical flexibility.”
It can be said that tournament football is much better suited to man of such passionate temperament as Renard, but is it enough to cement his place as a mastermind? As if to confirm where his natural character is best suited, he took over as Morocco manager earlier this year, and promptly beat Africa’s top ranked nation at the time – Cape Verde Islands – home and away in his first two matches to become the first country to qualify for next year’s AFCON in Gabon.
His apparent lack of material success at club level is hardly a fair black mark to make as he has yet to complete as season of top-flight football, although he has said to France Football that he is very interested in a return to England. If he did need to move to another country to gain the public’s approval in a domestic sphere, he wouldn’t be the first Frenchman to have to do so.
“I am slightly surprised by [his quote about French people] to to be honest,” continued Eastham. “I haven’t detected any hostility from him towards France or the French. He was perhaps perceived as a bit ‘flash’ before taking the Sochaux job but that was more to do with the good looks and the pristine white shirts on the touchline! I recall seeing him at at youth game in Paris and he was chatting and way amiably touchline the fans.”
Whether or not he does decide to return to France or club management in the future remains to be seen. For now, he has the sizeable task of moulding a cohesive team together taken from the broad Francophone diaspora that makes up a mosaic of cultural backgrounds, and his ability to scout and assess the options available to him will be tested if he is to progress with his new side. His predecessor, Badou Zaki, called up over 90 different players to a national team that has failed to make it past the group stages of the AFCON for almost 20 years, but there is hope that he is the man to whip the Atlas Lions into shape.
Much like LeRoy was given complete control of his sides, Renard will take control of the ‘A’ team and Olympic sides to ensure the smooth transition of fringe players. This utter unquestioning authority that he demands is something that club presidents the world over will struggle to accept if he turns his glances elsewhere after his time in Morocco; something tells you that his heart will always belong in Africa, and that he will only truly be at peace with himself in the one place he has always been regarded as a legend.
The only question that remains is whether the Prince will be granted the time to build yet another kingdom; if you doubt his ability, though, just try looking him in the eye and telling him.
By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint