Renard relishes task of defending Zambia's crown
Along with the footballing challenge, Zambia coach Herve Renard will be relishing the adrenaline rush on Friday when his team’s defense of its African Cup of Nations title comes up against continental powerhouse Nigeria.
Far from daunted by the prospect, the Frenchman made it clear in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday that the pulse-raising contest in Group C at Mbombela Stadium was just what football coaches thrive on.
“This is why we are doing our job, because we need a challenge — we need adrenaline,” Renard said.
The French coach also highlighted what he believes to be a narrowing gap between Africa’s big teams and the outsiders, having experienced the trend at first hand on Monday when 10-man Ethiopia held his Zambia side to a 1-1 draw.
That result has only increased the stakes for the clash against two-time champion Nigeria, highlighted before the tournament as one of the must-watch games of the group stage.
However, the draw also proved that no team can now be taken lightly in the African Cup of Nations, with the likes of Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Cape Verde already proving they can match the more experienced sides.
“I’m impressed by the organization and the spirit of some of the new teams, because they are able to keep well-organized and that puts a lot of pressure for the so-called big teams,” Renard said.
“You can see in the last two editions, Cameroon are not there, Egypt are not there, so maybe it’s a new cycle in Africa.
“I was joking the other day, and I said that I’m sure a lot of coaches are telling their teams, ’If Zambia can win it, we can too.’” That may make the 44-year-old’s job more difficult, but Renard insists that he savors the sensation of pressure.
“I prefer to have a chance to play against Nigeria rather than to coach a team in a small division, and don’t feel any pressure,” he said, before highlighting the need to really stir the emotions.
“This is very important in life. If you don’t have emotions... Sometimes they are bad, sometimes they are very high when you want something. But this is life and it’s important to have some adrenaline, otherwise it’s boring.” Many have questioned whether Zambia has the appetite for a second run at the African title less than 12 months after it lifted the trophy in Gabon.
The venue for its famous triumph, Libreville, was cited as a major motivating factor given that it was the scene of its worst sporting tragedy in 1993, when 18 Zambian players died in an air crash.
However Renard, whose faith in a lucky white shirt came to prominence in the 2012 tournament, played down the inspirational impact of that disaster on the team’s conquest.
“You know we were able to go back to Libreville only for the final, meaning we started the tournament on the 21st of January, and the final was the 12th of February,” he said.
“It was a big gap and it was one idea to have that (air disaster) as our motivation, but when you start one tournament it’s very difficult to say this will be our key engine. So I think the motivation is the same this year.” Zambia squandered a series of crisp build-ups against Ethiopia with wasteful shots from distance, something which Renard has attended to in training sessions during the week.
He knows the team can ill-afford to make similar mistakes against Nigeria, which possesses experience in midfield and talent in its young strike force. It will also be looking for a first victory in Group C after opening with a 1-1 draw against Burkina Faso.
“They are strong in attack, and very fast, which means we have to be careful and experienced at the back,” Renard said. “They have a good leader in the middle in John Obi Mikel, so it’s a good team.
“But we saw Burkina Faso were able to push forward ... and make the difference, so we need to do the same.”