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

<span>Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

When Morocco surprisingly lost on penalties to Benin in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, falling short of a quarter-final spot, it was tempting to wonder whether Hervé Renard had lost his sheen. The Frenchman had nothing to prove at that level but this time his sureness of touch had deserted him and, fulfilling a pledge he had made to himself before the tournament, he resigned.

Three weeks later he pitched up as Saudi Arabia manager and in signing for a struggling federation that had churned through 10 coaches in the previous decade, there was a sense he risked burying himself in a footballing desert.

But Renard is now more visible than ever. The Saudis’ victory against Argentina was stunning and finally brought the immaculately pressed white shirt, his hallmark for all who have followed a winding and varied career, into the mainstream. His previous heroics will have escaped the eyes of more casual international football viewers but he has entered the pantheon of managers who have overseen World Cup fairytales for the ages.

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Regardless of the legitimate unease about Saudi Arabia’s broader wielding of soft power through football, that is exactly what Renard has conjured with a domestic-based group barely known to anyone outside the country. If his team were fortunate to go in one goal down at half-time, they swamped Argentina in a dazzling 15-minute spell after the break and deserved their victory. They had flirted with self-destruction in persisting with a perilously high defensive line but the ploy worked: Renard could not resist a high-risk approach, even against Argentina, and his bravery brought unthinkable rewards.

“We have a crazy coach,” the midfielder Abdulelah al-Malki said. “He motivated us at half-time, telling us stuff that made us want to eat the grass.” Beneath Renard’s immaculate exterior lies an intense, charismatic figure whose ability to carry others with him has previous for ensuring his teams punch above their weight.

It would be doing Renard and Afcon a disservice to suggest Tuesday’s shock is a greater achievement than his African titles and especially the 2012 win with an unheralded Zambia. Back then, his team channelled the pain of the air crash near Libreville, the capital of Gabon, that cost 18 Chipolopolo players their lives; they sensationally beat Ivory Coast to win the final in the same city.

Three days before the final he had taken them to the beach closest to the rescue operation, the players laying floral tributes to their deceased predecessors. “Everybody is now looking for symbols but I think this one here is very powerful,” he said.

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

Three years later, he was winning 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 a talented generation led by Yaya Touré had tangible reward.

Although he could not repeat the trick with Morocco, in hindsight their performance at Russia 2018 may have suggested the kind of earthquake he has produced with Saudi Arabia was in the post. Morocco approached a group featuring Spain, Portugal and Iran with gusto. They would have beaten Spain in their final game if, on a dramatic and highly charged night, Iago Aspas had not scored a VAR-awarded equaliser and it was already clear Renard was prepared to attack the sport’s biggest stage on his own terms.

Now he is inscribed in its history and it is deserved recognition for a man who initially followed a modest and financially unfulfilling playing career by working as a cleaner, primarily taking out bins and keeping an apartment block in order. He would rise at 2am, finish work at midday and coach lowly SC Draguignan, based on the Côte d’Azur, in the early evening. “It was a harder life than being a trainee or a professional footballer,” he said. “It’s the best schooling I could have ever had.”

Related: ‘We have made history’: Hervé Renard salutes ‘crazy’ Saudi Arabia victory

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

Renard makes no secret of his debt to Le Roy and often becomes visibly emotional when speaking in depth about his mentor. The pair worked together at Cambridge United for a short spell in 2004, Renard briefly taking the senior role at the Abbey Stadium in what his compatriot Le Roy said later was a step intended to help his protege. In a sprinkling of other short-term appointments they also paired up at Ghana, where Renard’s official job title was “physical instructor”.

That led to some scepticism in 2008 when he received his big break with Zambia, with whom he spent two stints. “In my first interview in Zambia, I was asked how a physical trainer was going to manage a national team,” he said. “I was a bit upset but I said to myself that the provocation was good for me. I said to myself: ‘I will show you what I can do.’”

There is no doubting Renard any more. If spells in club football with Sochaux and Lille were unsuccessful, he has proved a master of the international scene and answered anyone who wondered whether his skills were transferable beyond Africa. That was the intention behind taking his current post and betting he could jam the revolving door that has given Saudi football little hope of stability.

“This change was what I wanted because the media likes to pigeonhole coaches,” Renard said before the World Cup, explaining his move to the Middle East. Nobody would dare put him in a box any longer.