Hervé Renard’s fairytale journey from Cambridge to World Cup mastermind | World Cup 2022

When Morocco lost to Benin on penalties and failed to reach the quarter-finals at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, one was tempted to wonder if Hervé Renard had lost his luster. He had nothing to prove at this level, but this time his touch security had deserted him and he stepped down to fulfill a promise he made to himself before the tournament.

Three weeks later he took over as manager of Saudi Arabia and when he signed for a struggling association that had been roiled by 10 managers in the last decade, he felt he was risking burying himself in a footballing desert.

But Renard is now more visible than ever. The Saudis’ win over Argentina was stunning and finally brought the impeccably pressed white shirt, his trademark for anyone who has had a checkered and varied career, into the mainstream. His earlier exploits may have escaped the eyes of the more casual international football viewer, but he has entered the pantheon of managers who have overseen World Cup tales for ages.

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Notwithstanding legitimate unease about Saudi Arabia’s wider application of soft power through football, that is precisely what Renard has conjured up with a domestically based group little known to anyone outside the country. If his side were lucky enough to fall a goal behind at half-time, they overwhelmed Argentina in a blinding 15-minute post-break period and earned their win. They had flirted with self-destruct by insisting on a dangerously high defensive line, but the trick worked: Renard could not resist a risky approach, even against Argentina, and his bravery brought unimaginable rewards.

“We have a crazy coach,” said midfielder Abdulelah al-Malki. “He motivated us at half-time and told us things that made us want to eat the grass.” Beneath Renard’s immaculate exterior lies an intense, charismatic character whose ability to carry others has previously ensured that that beat his teams about their weight.

It would do Renard and Afcon a disservice to claim Tuesday’s shock was a greater achievement than his African titles and particularly the 2012 win with an unheralded Zambia. Back then, his team channeled the pain of the plane crash near Libreville, the capital of Gabon, that cost 18 Chipopololo players their lives; They sensationally beat Ivory Coast and won the final in the same city.

Three days before the final, he had taken them to the beach closest to the rescue and the players had laid floral tributes to their late predecessors. “Everyone is looking for symbols now, but I think this one is very powerful,” he said.

Saudi Arabia's players and fans react after Salem al-Dawsari's goal against Argentina
Saudi Arabia’s players and fans react after Salem al-Dawsari’s goal against Argentina. Photo: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Three years later he won the tournament again, this time with Ivory Coast, becoming the first manager to do so with two countries. If that was less of a shock, he had still ensured that a talented generation led by Yaya Touré had a tangible reward.

Although he failed to repeat the trick with Morocco, his performance at Russia 2018 might hint in hindsight that the kind of earthquake he caused with Saudi Arabia was in the post. Morocco enthusiastically approached a group with Spain, Portugal and Iran. They would have beaten Spain in their last game had Iago Aspas not scored a VAR-awarded equalizer on a dramatic and highly charged night and it was already clear that Renard was ready to attack the sport’s greatest stage on his own terms.

Now he has written himself into his story and deserves recognition for a man who, after a modest and financially unsatisfactory playing career, first worked as a cleaner, mainly taking out rubbish and keeping a house in order. He got up at 2am, finished work at noon and coached SC Draguignan on the Côte d’Azur in the early evening. “It was a harder life as a trainee or professional soccer player,” he said. “This is the best education I could have ever received.”

Maybe that explains the fire burning in his eyes. He started his own industrial cleaning company while earning his coaching badges on the side. Everything changed when his friend Pierre Romero, a former director of Rouen FC for whose company Renard had previously worked, took a call from Claude Le Roy in late 2001. Le Roy needed an assistant for his new role as Shanghai Cosco manager: the invitation was extended to Renard and one of modern football’s most fascinating journeys was set in motion.

Renard makes no secret of his debt to Le Roy and often becomes visibly emotional when he talks at length about his mentor. The pair worked together briefly at Cambridge United in 2004, with Renard briefly taking on the senior role at Abbey Stadium, which Le Roy later said was a move meant to help his charge. A number of other last-minute appointments also brought them together in Ghana, where Renard’s official job title was Physical Instructor.

That prompted some skepticism in 2008 when he had his big break at Zambia, where he spent two stints. “In my first job interview in Zambia, I was asked how a fitness coach would manage a national team,” he said. “I was a little upset, but I told myself that the provocation was good for me. I said to myself, ‘I’ll show you what I can do.’”

There is no longer any doubt about Renard. While unsuccessful stints in club football at Sochaux and Lille, he has proven himself a master of the international scene, answering everyone who has wondered if his skills are transferrable beyond Africa. That was the intent to take over his current post and bet he could block the revolving door that has given Saudi football little hope of stability.

“I wanted this change because the media likes to pigeonhole coaches,” Renard explained his move to the Middle East before the World Cup. Nobody would dare put him in a box anymore.

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