TueWhen Morocco unexpectedly lost on penalties to Benin at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations before reaching the quarter-finals, it was tempting to wonder if Hervé Renard had lost his luster. He had nothing to prove at this level, but this time his confidence left him and, fulfilling the promise he made to himself before the tournament, he resigned.
Three weeks later, he became manager of Saudi Arabia, and by signing with a struggling federation that had changed 10 managers over the previous decade, it felt like he was risking burying himself in the football desert.
But Renard is now more visible than ever. The Saudi victory over Argentina was stunning and finally brought the immaculately pressed white shirt that is the hallmark of anyone who has followed a tortuous and varied career into the mainstream. His former heroism has eluded the more casual international football crowd, but he has entered the pantheon of managers who have watched World Cup tales for centuries.
Regardless of legitimate concerns about Saudi Arabia’s greater use of soft power through football, that’s what Renard has created with a local group barely known to anyone outside the country. If his team was lucky enough to lose one goal at half-time, they beat Argentina in a dazzling 15 minutes after half-time and deserved to win. They flirted with self-destruction by maintaining a dangerously high defensive line, but the ploy worked: Renard could not resist a risky approach even against Argentina, and his bravery brought unimaginable rewards.
“We have a crazy coach,” said midfielder Abdullah al-Malki. “He motivated us at halftime by telling us things that made us want to eat weed.” Underneath Renard’s impeccable exterior is a flamboyant, charismatic figure whose ability to take others with him used to be the key to his teams winning above their weight.
It would be a disservice to Renard and Afkon if they suggested Tuesday’s shock is more of an accomplishment than his African titles and especially a victory over surprise Zambia in 2012. At that time, his team mitigated the consequences of a plane crash near Libreville, the capital of Gabon, which cost 18 Chipolopolo the lives of the players; they sensationally beat Ivory Coast and won the final in the same city.
Three days before the final, he took them to the beach closest to the rescue site, and the players laid flowers in memory of their deceased predecessors. “Now everyone is looking for symbols, but I think this one is very powerful here,” he said.
Three years later, he won the tournament again, this time with the Ivory Coast, becoming the first manager to do so with two countries. If this was not a shock, he nevertheless provided a talented generation led by Yaya Toure with material rewards.
Although he was unable to replicate this stunt with Morocco, looking back at their performance in Russia in 2018, it can be assumed that the earthquake he produced with Saudi Arabia was on post. Morocco gladly approached the group consisting of Spain, Portugal and Iran. They would have beaten Spain in their last game if Iago Aspas had not equalized the score awarded by VAR on that dramatic and very tense evening, and even then it was clear that Renard was ready to attack the biggest sports arena on his own terms.
Now he’s inscribed in her story, and it’s well-deserved recognition for a man who initially followed a modest and financially unsatisfying playing career, working as a janitor, mostly taking out the trash, and keeping an apartment building tidy. He got up at 2 am, finished work at noon and coached the modest Côte d’Azur based SC Draguignan in the early evening. “It was a harder life than being a trainee or a professional footballer,” he said. “This is the best education I have ever received.”
Perhaps this explains the fire that burns in his eyes. He started his own industrial cleaning company while earning his coaching badges on the side. Everything changed when, at the end of 2001, his friend Pierre Romero, the former director of the Rouen football club, in whose firm Renard had previously worked, answered the call of Claude Le Roy. with Renard, and began one of the most exciting journeys in modern football.
Renard makes no secret of his debt to Le Roy and often becomes visibly emotional when talking at length about his mentor. The pair briefly worked together at Cambridge United in 2004, Renard briefly took on a management role at the Abbey Stadium in what Le Roy later said was a move to help his protégé. In a number of other short-term contracts, they also teamed up in Ghana, where Renard’s official job title was “Physical Instructor”.
This caused some skepticism in 2008 when he got his big break in Zambia, with whom he spent two seasons. “During my first interview in Zambia, I was asked how the physical education coach would manage the national team,” he said. “I was a little upset, but I told myself that the provocation did me good. I said to myself: “I’ll show you what I can do.”
Renard has no more doubts. If club football performances with Sochaux and Lille failed, he proved himself a master on the international stage and answered anyone who wondered if his skills could be transferred outside of Africa. It was the intent to take over his current post and bet he could slam the revolving door that has given Saudi football little hope of stability.
“This change was what I wanted because the media loves to classify coaches,” Renard said ahead of the World Cup, explaining his move to the Middle East. No one else would dare to put him in a box.