/ 16 November 2012

Football: How Copper Bullets struck gold

Zambia coach Hervé Renard.
Zambia coach Hervé Renard.

After shooting down Bafana Bafana at Soccer City this week, Hervé Renard and Chris Katongo swaggered into a glum post-match press conference like a pair of action heroes. Katongo, the Chipolopolo captain, a warrant officer in the Zambian army, is all testy bravado. His coiffured French coach is almost comically urbane.

But neither is inclined to "pass the bush", to borrow Katongo's version of the idiom. The Copper Bullets are the kings of Africa and they are keen to remind anyone who forgets this.

"If these so-called 'big teams' want to beat us at South Africa 2013, let them come and beat us," barked Katongo. "Our team spirit is about togetherness. We direct each other and nobody is above any other player – that's our theory in our team. If a young player comes in he will find me the same as him. And we have a great coach who is straightforward in everything he says."

True, but Renard is also good at shutting up sometimes, thus allowing space for Katongo and others to lead. The coach is no martinet or pedantic tactician; he thinks more about dispositions than positions.

Earlier this week, Renard sat in the garden of the modest hotel in Milpark where the team was staying and remembered the moment when he realised – on the evidence of Katongo's prickly self-belief – that his troops were capable of going all the way in Gabon.

Surprising people
"The day before the Ghana semifinal I recognised the spirit of the team," said Renard. "Chris got a bit upset, because a journalist asked his name during a press conference. He told them: 'Today you don't know my name. Tomorrow you will know it.'

"When people are talking rubbish about us, they keep motivating us. We have a little bit more respect now, but not that much more. Honestly, we're laughing about that. We want to keep on surprising people.

"The name of Zambia, winners of the 2012 Nations Cup, will last forever. And those who are talking us down today – we won't remember them in 20 years."

It may take a bit more work to qualify as truly unforgettable. Aside from defending their African crown, Zambia must target a ticket to Brazil 2014 – and their World Cup dream inched a little closer when the African football governing body the CAF awarded them three points for their qualifier against Sudan, reversing a 2-0 loss because the Sudanese fielded a suspended player.

"It's our year. Even when we lose we win," said Renard.

They must trump Ghana yet again to top their group. It is tough but do-able – provided that TP Mazembe stars Stoppila Sunzu and Rainford Kalaba sustain their Cup form.

"Sunzu could play in the Premier Soccer League," said Renard. "Maybe not for the big four, but for any of the other 16. The only problem is that TP Mazembe want a good deal for him. We are lucky to have him.

Indispensable talent

"And Kennedy Mweene – you know he could play somewhere else, but he's very happy at Free State Stars because he's comfortable there. They gave him what he wants. Life is to be enjoyed as well. Many African players are just more comfortable in Africa."

A case in point was Kalaba, he said. "He can make the difference at any time, but he's not easy to manage. Not because he behaves badly, but if he's not feeling good he struggles and that's the reason he failed in Europe. When you arrive there, you have nobody to help you; you have to make your way and fight for your position.

"But we can't play without Kalaba, so we have to do everything to make him feel comfortable. We gave him something and he gave us a lot of things in return."

Renard is also giving Kalaba a challenger in Power Dynamos playmaker Mukuka Mulenga. "He's not tall, he has no legs, no muscles. But with the ball … ayayay! Such a talent."

It's arguable that Chipolopolo's most indispensable talent wears a suit: Football Association of Zambia president Kalusha Bwalya.

"The difference Kalu has brought is not interfering," said Renard. "And he's the only one qualified to interfere – the best player in Zambian history; he was captain; he was coach. But he lets the coach work. A big problem in African football is interference. There are many countries with the same potential as Zambia, but we succeed because everybody is doing his job. You can't achieve anything with three coaches in a year."

But surely some blame must lie with Africa's coterie of job-hopping Europeans? "Yes, but maybe those coaches don't feel they're in the right place. I can only speak for myself. My plan is to stay as long as possible with Zambia. I receive a lot of proposals from more important African countries, but I know there is a 90% chance that somewhere else somebody will interfere, or say: 'We pay you, you have to get a result immediately.' I just want to enjoy myself, and if people are satisfied then I'm very happy." Renard rejected an offer from Auxerre this year. "They were in trouble with 12 games remaining. I'd just won the Cup and I would have lost my credibility if they went down – and they went down."

He spends "90%" of his time in Zambia. "It's an amazing country and growing fast. I saw a huge difference in the infrastructure after being away for just a year. And the politicians don't interfere in football. Before this year it was financially difficult, but now there's more sponsorship. "Even so, we were going to choose a smarter hotel for this friendly, but we decided to stay where we used to. We're comfortable. We don't have to change things just because we won something."

Renard was born 44 years ago in Aix-les-Bains, not far from Switzerland. He was a humdrum defender for Cannes: "I was average with a good spirit and not enough talent. That's why I like to see talent now, because I didn't have much myself."

Tactics and selections
One of his Cannes teammates had no such problem: Zinedine Zidane. "He was the same player at 15 – he just had to improve physically and tactically a little. But he was amazing, like a piece of gold."

Renard began coaching at 30 for lower-league Draguignan before landing a gig as assistant to renowned Africa veteran Claude le Roy at Chinese club Shanghai Cosco. Le Roy became his mentor and later invited him to assist with Ghana in 2008.

"Imagine arriving in Accra at that time. The atmosphere, the emotions. Foof! And players like Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari. I felt like a small kid but I was there to learn."

Renard watches a PSL match every weekend and admires the commercial polish of South African football. "Your organisation is perfect, but the football not so much. I don't know why. You have maybe better players than we do in Zambia. You have a great goalkeeper and players who can score and defensively strong players and skill. You have everything. But I think maybe there's too much money. Some of the players here think they are the best in the world. But when last were a South African club champions of Africa?"

Um, 17 years ago. Keen to change the subject, I asked Renard whether he might mix up his tactics and selections at South Africa 2013 to outwit his rivals. How would he adjust the approach?"The approach is to win the competition," he replied wrily. Touché.