This piece originally appeared on the Carvalho Peninsula.
It was hard not to be proud when Hervé Renard pulled off an unthinkable and profoundly moving victory with the Zambian national team in February. The architect of a success based on organisation, commitment and spirit, Renard won hearts the world over. But he had won mine years earlier, when I was a Cambridge United season ticket holder during his short and dismal tenure at the Abbey Stadium in 2004. Despite his failure with the Us, his victory in the Africa Cup of Nations delighted me more than anything else I can remember in football.
In truth, Renard was never suited to the English lower leagues. It seemed to dawn on him far too late that it was hopeless trying to get a load of confused and cold Francophones playing progressive football in a division full of teams that made Olsen’s Norway look like Guardiola’s Barcelona. None of his signings succeeded, he was lampooned for his poor command of the English language and after a few sad months he was gone.
Despite his undeniable failure, no sacking upset me like his. The football, while unsuccessful, was of an admirable sort: theoretically, a cut above the Reepian hoof-ball that has polluted the English game since the 1950s. His interviews, while often comical, gave the impression of a man who knew that his methods were sound, if only they would be properly understood. This was a chance to improve, passed up for the sake of results in the short term.
Shortly after his departure, I met Renard on the streets of Cambridge. The brief chat we had was far from fluent or enlightening, but it still left me wishing that the poor guy would get a break: something – anything – that could be qualified as a success. I paid attention to his career for a few years, noting that he was working again in France and then returning to Africa with Claude Le Roy, but eventually I lost track.
Fast forward to 12 February 2012, and Renard’s Zambia are playing Côte d’Ivoire in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations. The game is taking place in Libreville, Gabon, a city in which a plane crash killed eighteen members of the Zambian national team in 1993. In rural Suffolk, I am nervously watching the match on a dodgy internet stream.
Renard has evidently learned in the years since his Cambridge disaster and his Zambian charges are continuing their run of good performances, proving themselves well-drilled, resolute and ready to give everything for each other. They are the very antithesis of the side I watched from the terraces all those years ago.
The final is tense but uneventful. Arguably the most memorable moment comes after ten minutes, when Zambia’s veteran left-back Joseph Musonda leaves the field injured and in tears. After two hours of anxious deadlock, a penalty shootout looms large. Moments before the shootout begins, my stream cuts out, never to be resurrected.
Not knowing where else to turn, I log on to Twitter and watch as each individual spot-kick is live-tweeted by scores of enthralled viewers. As each Ivorian penalty is converted, I am sure that that’s it: the game is up, Hervé’s shot at glory has passed, his Z-listers did well enough to get this far. And then I see that Zambia have scored their penalty and that the shootout continues, and my heart leaps into my mouth.
Eventually, the unthinkable happens: Kolo Touré sees Kennedy Mweene save his shot. I learn this via several tweets which, while mostly incoherent and hysterical, convey the basic message that Zambia will win the tournament if they score their next penalty. The tension is too much. I can’t look (at Twitter).
After a pregnant pause I refresh the feed and see that Gervinho is on his way forward, meaning that Rainford Kalaba missed his kick. At this point I really am sure that it’s all over. If Zambia couldn’t take that chance, they will never win. But then Gervinho misses.
This time, there is no looking away. I have to know. I momentarily forgo my atheist beliefs and issue prayers to every god under the sun – including Dimitar Berbatov – requesting that Stoppila Sunzu scores the next penalty. I am shaking as I hit refresh and see that Sunzu has indeed slammed his spot-kick past Boubacar Barry. I don’t really remember what happened next, presumably because it was too embarrassing for my mind to record.
Zambia’s triumph in the Africa Cup of Nations was arguably the greatest victory in the history of football. They were 50/1 to win the tournament before it began, but that does not tell the whole story. His side may have been uninspiring from technical and tactical perspectives, but their tale of loss, of rebuilding and of the fostering of an unbreakable team spirit is an inspiration to players, coaches, administrators and fans everywhere. That their crowning moment came in Libreville, the scene of Zambian football’s lowest ebb, made it all the more special.
Before the final, Renard said: “It was written in the stars that we had to return to Gabon in order to honour the memories of the national side wiped out in 1993. Twelve million Zambians wanted us to go the whole way to Libreville. As soon as we arrive in Libreville, we will go to the spot where the plane crashed, not far from the stadium. It is imperative we play for them, for Zambia, because it is a fantastic country.” I’m no believer in fate, but with words that strong it is easy to see how Renard made his players seem so sure of their destiny.
The day after the final, watching through a considerable stream of tears (yes, I know) the omnipresent video of Hervé Renard carrying the stricken Musonda to celebrate with his teammates, I knew that I had been right all those years ago: that he was, above all else, a good man, and that he deserved success for that reason alone.