Herve Renard: ‘It’s wrong to say I came to Saudi Arabia for business, it’s for football’


Herve Renard is laughing. We are talking about the white shirt, a piece of clothing he has made his own in much the same way Uma Thurman did in Pulp Fiction.

It’s 12 years since Renard, then in charge of Zambia, put on a white shirt in their opening game of the Africa Cup of Nations. When he switched to blue for their second game against Cameroon, they lost, so he went back to white and, out of superstition, has stuck with it since — winning AFCON with Zambia in 2012 and Ivory Coast in 2015 and leading Morocco and now Saudi Arabia to the World Cup.

It was the same look on Tuesday during the opening match of Group C in Qatar, when the Saudis shocked everyone with a 2-1 victory over Argentina. When he spoke to The Athletic before the tournament, Renard seemed sure the shirt would continue to bring him luck.

“I’m wearing the white shirt because it’s a winning shirt,” he says. “Now it has to be a winning shirt in Asia. I’m very comfortable. I’m a bit superstitious, like a lot of people in football. So now people are talking about it, I won’t change. I will finish my career like this even if I don’t win anything more, but I hope I will win something else.”

Renard gives the impression of being more image-conscious than, say, Jurgen Klopp, with his baseball cap and tracksuit. But he points out the Liverpool manager “now has no glasses” (after laser eye surgery last year) and “has the perfect teeth… so he also is thinking about his image!”

He laughs again. “I’m comfortable like this,” he says. “This is the most important thing.”

Renard was appointed Saudi Arabia coach in 2019 (Photo: AMER HILABI/AFP via Getty Images)

Renard is comfortable with the path his coaching career has taken. Some managers struggle with the rhythm of international football and end up pining for the day-to-day pressures of the club game, but six of Renard’s past nine jobs (including his two spells with Zambia) have been in charge of national teams.

We will come back to some of the jobs in question — particularly the latest one in Saudi Arabia and that glorious, emotional-fuelled journey to AFCON glory with Zambia in Gabon — but before that we go further back. Further, even, than his improbable brief spell in charge of Cambridge United.

Like many a successful coach, Renard is scornful of his talents as a player. He spent seven years at Cannes, playing alongside a young Zinedine Zidane (“already a fantastic player”) in the Coupe Gambardella, but he made little impact at first-team level before dropping down to the regionalised third tier to play part-time at Stade de Vallauris and SC Draguignan.

To make ends meet, he ran a cleaning company in Cannes. “Cleaning people’s apartments, holiday rental apartments, cleaning carpets, cleaning windows, putting out the rubbish,” he says. “I was getting up at 2.30 in the morning to clean, working until midday, sleeping in the afternoon, then training in the evening, getting home, going to bed at 11pm before getting up again at 2.30. It was hard work, but it’s the same for a lot of people.”

Somewhere in this schedule, while working full-time and playing part-time, he was studying to be a coach. Then came a lucky break: Claude Le Roy, another globe-trotting French coach, was looking for an assistant to join him at Shanghai Cosco and a mutual friend proposed Renard. The pair of them met up, hit it off and suddenly they were off to China together.

Then it was Cambridge: Le Roy as manager — “possibly the most exciting appointment this club has made in its entire history,” chairman Gary Harwood declared — with Renard as his assistant. This was at a time when overseas coaches were a rarity even in the upper echelons of the Premier League, never mind the lower reaches of the fourth tier.

“We came eight games before the end of the season and we were near the bottom of the table,” Renard says. “The manager (Le Roy) was on French TV, so he was not able to come for training. I did the training.

“I remember the first game (at home to Cheltenham Town). The stadium was very small, but it was a fantastic atmosphere with the people just behind my bench. And we were leading after 10 minutes. Wow! It was a fantastic start. Sometimes the manager was there, sometimes not, but we did well and finished 13th, so it was very good.”

At the end of the season Le Roy departed, feeling it was impossible to juggle the Cambridge job with his television commitments, and Renard took over. “I put John Ruddy in goal when he was 17 years old,” he says. “Soon after that, (Sir Alex) Ferguson called me to ask about John Ruddy. I was very proud. Me, a small coach in League Two and Mr Ferguson was calling to ask for one of my players.”

But with the club in a state of financial chaos, Renard was fighting a losing battle on the pitch. He was sacked in December with Cambridge bottom of the table. “The president (Harwood) said to me, ‘Coach, I’m sorry, we need to change something because we absolutely need to stay in this league’,” Renard says. “This is football.

“But it was a very good experience for me. The atmosphere of English football is amazing. I remember kids were going to school with the shirt of Cambridge United. You can’t imagine this in France with a club at the fourth level. People in England love their club. They are going down. They’re 3-0 down but they continue to support their team. It’s fantastic.”

From there, Renard embraced a peripatetic existence, taking work wherever he could find it — from Nam Dinh in Vietnam’s V-League to Cherbourg in France, from international management with Zambia and Angola and then back to the club scene in Algeria with USM Alger — before a career-defining second spell in charge of Zambia, leading them to AFCON glory 19 years after the Libreville air disaster that killed all 18 players en route to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal.

“A lot of people don’t know Zambia very well,” he says. “But it’s a fantastic country, a peaceful country, and I was lucky to be there. The spirit of the people there was fantastic.

“I had been there before when we reached the (AFCON) quarter-final in 2010 and lost in a penalty shootout against Nigeria, so when I came back I said my target was to reach the semi-final in 2012. People said, ‘This guy is crazy’.

“Maybe some people don’t know the story, but it was maybe the best Zambia team ever that died in that crash in 1993. The president of the federation (Kalusha Bwalya) was part of this team, one of the best Zambian players ever, but he was not on the plane because he was playing for PSV Eindhoven. Imagine that: you’re staying at home, you turn on your TV and the team’s plane has crashed.

“We wanted to do it for the players Zambia lost, but also for him and for all the Zambian people. The day before the final, we went to the beach where the plane crashed.”

Was there a risk that the players could be overwhelmed by the emotional burden they were carrying? “We didn’t speak about this,” Renard says. “It was an obligation to play for the memory of the people. Emotionally it was something very important for us.

“The spirit of those players was something I don’t think I will find anywhere else. I remember when I went back to Zambia later, people said to me, ‘You put us on the map’. They are so proud of that team. It was something very special. That’s the right word: special.”

Renard is feted in Zambia for leading them to AFCON glory in 2012 (Photo: Ben Radford/Corbis via Getty Images)

Another AFCON victory followed with Ivory Coast three years later, but Renard’s two stints as a coach in Ligue 1, with Sochaux and Lille, were short-lived. “I didn’t have a very good relationship with the president when I was at Lille, which is a shame,” he says. “Maybe it was me, maybe it was him, but I still have to heal from this period because Lille was a very good club and I didn’t have success. It’s one of the worst parts of my career as a coach.

“To be honest, when I started, I wanted to be coaching in Ligue 1. I wasn’t thinking about Africa or the Middle East. I wasn’t thinking about national teams. But as a coach, you try. Sometimes you fall down. You have to step up, you have to walk forward. This is life for everyone.”

For all the attention given here and elsewhere to his fashion choices, it is as a coach and a motivator that he excels, energising, organising, and instilling unity and belief among his players.

Whatever his frustrations over his time in Ligue 1, maybe he is better suited to the rhythm of international football, having led two teams to AFCON glory and another two (Morocco and now Saudi Arabia) to World Cup qualification.

Morocco performed well in 2018 but conceded a stoppage-time equaliser against Iran, lost 1-0 to Portugal and, having led Spain 1-0, ended up bottom of an unforgiving group after conceding a stoppage-time equaliser.

“We played very well but we weren’t efficient enough,” he says. “We played so well against Iran but in the last minute, we conceded the goal on the counter-attack. Of course, we did well, but we didn’t have enough to reach the second round. This is football, but this is also the World Cup experience.”

He believes the conundrum with Saudi Arabia has been similar: to introduce tactical discipline, efficiency and a more disciplined team mentality to a nation whose approach to football has traditionally been more free-spirited.

Against Argentina, the Saudis were certainly efficient, with second-half goals from Salah Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari (the top two goal contributors in qualifying, as shown in The Radar) enough to give them victory despite only three shots in total across the game. They were also brave and disciplined as they held their high defensive line against Lionel Messi and co rather than revert to a low block.

“The players have a lot of skill,” Renard says of Saudi football. “Sometimes they want to do magic things, but what we also need is to play as a team. That is the most important thing. To have a better idea of Saudi football, you can compare with North African countries. They too have a lot of skill. I remember when Algeria were very good in the World Cup. They were a very good team — together.

“Everywhere I go, I always try to have a good team spirit: the players playing together. I always repeat the same — we’re not playing for ourselves, we’re not playing for a show. Sometimes it’s not necessary to play fantastic football, you know. We need to play as a team.”

Taking the Saudi job has attracted criticism given the widespread condemnation of the kingdom’s human rights records. “I’m not listening to people,” he says. “I think the country has improved a lot. There are still things to improve, but there is a will. I see a lot of difference in the time I have been here.

“Some people in France are thinking I only came here for business, that there’s no football. But that’s wrong. It’s wrong. You go to watch Al-Ittihad vs Al-Hilal and there are 60,000 people there in Jeddah. This is a country of football.”

That much is true, as illustrated by the fervour of their travelling supporters in Doha on Tuesday.

It is also a job that pays handsomely, having recently extended his contract to 2027. But for all the luxuries of his life in Riyadh — and the promise of returning there with his national hero status enhanced after that remarkable victory over Argentina — Renard has not forgotten where he came from.

When he was back in France this summer, he sought out his old business partner and asked whether he could do a cleaning shift for old-time’s sake.

“I was on holiday in Cannes,” Renard says. “And I asked him, ‘May I come?’. He said, ‘To do what?’ I said, ‘I want to do what I was doing before. For one day. It will refresh me’. And I like it because I always say, football players are… they are living on the moon. (Football) is not the reality of life. You are completely outside of the real life of people, you know? In football, it can be hard to keep your feet on the ground.”

So he got up at 2.30am, like old times, and spent the next eight hours emptying bins, scrubbing and cleaning. “A fantastic day,” he says. “We work eight hours consecutively, but it was a very good time.”

Just one question: was he not concerned about getting the white shirt dirty? He laughs. “It was a white T-shirt.”

(Top photo: JOSE JORDAN/AFP via Getty Images)


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