Of the last five coaches to win the African Cup of Nations, three have been French. None inflicted much as much of a surprise as Herve Renard this year though, when he led unfancied Zambia to an historic and emotional victory at the Stade de l’Amitie in Libreville, not far from where much of the country’s team had been killed in a plane crash some 20 years previously. Zambia defeated the tournament’s overwhelming favourites the Ivory Coast, in the final, on penalties after a 0-0 draw.
Renard’s victory was one born of tactically astute management of the Copper Bullets throughout the tournament. A self-confessed lover of tactics, the Zambia coach, who had enjoyed a previous spell with the country between 2008 and 2010 before returning last year, forged a superb team spirit among his group. Respected by his team, the Frenchman was able to convince his charges to listen to and act on his instructions. Zambia made themselves difficult to beat when they came up against better teams, such as the Ivory Coast, where sitting back and using wide players to launch attacks was the order of the day for his team.
It worked. By not playing a high line, Renard was able to stifle Ivorian talent Gervinho, who was crucial in the Elephants’ semi-final win over Mali. His attention to detail was also vital as Zambia edged past Ghana 1-0 in their own semi-final, though much credit was also due to goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene.
How it must have made English lower league club Cambridge United look back in regret. The Frenchman had once coached the Us, before being fired because chairman Gary Harwood did not “have time for Renard’s philosophy to flow through to our team, given where we are in the league."
Renard is just one of the many French tacticians who have spent a considerable period of time in Africa. Of course the fact that many countries on the continent speak French is helpful for these journeymen coaches, but there are also many English-speaking nations and relatively fewer managers from that country on the continent.
One Frenchman who has enjoyed a successful if coloured period in Africa is Philippe Troussier. He started out on the continent with ASEC d’Abidjan in 1990, and won three successive Premier League titles with the side in the Ivory Coast, a period during which the team set a world record 108 domestic league games without defeat; Troussier then took over the national side. His time in charge of the Elephants lasted barely a year however and the Frenchman then coached teams in South Africa and Morocco before qualifying Nigeria for the World Cup in 1998, only to be fired after he refused to take orders from officials. Troussier was not to be denied a chance to coach in his homeland during the World Cup though after South Africa asked him to manage their team during their first appearance at the finals. In between those assignments, the coach even had time to lead minnows Burkina Faso to the semi-finals of the 1998 African Cup of Nations.
Troussier did not enjoy a particularly distinguished career as a player, unlike Alain Giresse, part of the famous ‘magic square’ with Michel Platini, Luis Fernandez and Jean Tigana as France won the European Championships in 1984. Giresse managed Gabon from 2006 until 2010, but moved on to take over at Mali, and promptly knocked his former team out of the African Cup of Nations they co-hosted earlier this year.
The other African Cup of Nations host nation, Equatorial Guinea, were suddenly left without a coach on the eve of the tournament when their Frenchman at the helm, Henri Michel, left. He had resigned once already before returning, only to leave for good in December. Michel has previously coached Cameroon, Tunisia and Morocco, twice. His first spell with Morocco was unremarkable, a quarter-final appearance at the Nations Cup being a highlight, whilst the second spell was worse still, with Michel fired after a poor showing at the 2008 tournament. Perhaps the former France international’s best time in Africa was at the 2006 World Cup, where he coached the Ivory Coast to glorious failure, as they exited at the group stage after having been pitted with Argentina and Holland in an extremely unfriendly draw.
Another Frenchman, Paul Le Guen, experienced similar misery with Cameroon after taking the Indomitable Lions to the 2010 World Cup, only to suffer a poor tournament following an equally disappointing African Cup of Nations. More successful was Roger Lemerre, assistant to Aime Jacquet at the 1998 World Cup which France won. Though he presided over victory at Euro 2000, he was also in charge for the disastrous 2002 World Cup defence, which saw France exit at the group stage. Lemerre went on to coach Tunisia to the African Cup of Nations title in 2004, before taking over Morocco in 2008.
Pierre Lechantre, like Troussier and Renard, had a relatively modest playing career, but again he was one of the more successful French coaches to try their arm in Africa, with Cameroon claiming the African Cup of Nations title in 2002. Lechantre was also appointed Senegal manager this year, but has since gone back on taking that job.
So what can be judged from the close relationship between African countries and French coaches? Well, some managers enjoy successful playing careers and then go on to thrive in management, and can enjoy an easier ride on the African continent, counting down the days to retirement with a team who are attracted by the glamour and contacts they bring. For others, it is the chance to prove themselves, as Troussier and Renard have done. African countries for their part relish the opportunity to use European coaching expertise to help build a successful team that can dominate the continent. In days where the best players from Africa are increasingly sought after, it possibly requires managers with more experience and know-how to get the best out of them. One thing is for sure though – the number of French coaches taking charge of Africa’s teams is not likely to subside anytime soon.