Renard: There is outstanding young talent in Saudi Arabia
Riyadh: After more than a decade in Africa, where he enjoyed very successful stints in Zambia, Côte d'Ivoire and Morocco, winning the CAF Africa Cup of Nations title twice and qualifying for the FIFA World Cup, French coach Herve Renard decided to switch continents. His new destination is Asia, where he headed in July to take up the coaching reins of Saudi Arabia.
Despite a busy schedule and having little time to prepare for the ongoing Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023, the coach took time out to talk exclusively to FIFA.com. “It was time for a new challenge, and I hope I’ll succeed in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
During the interview, the 51-year-old Frenchman discussed, among other things, his objectives with the Saudi national team, his memories of more than a decade in Africa, and why he likes to have a good relationship with his players wherever he goes.
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After a lengthy stay in Africa, what motivated you move to Asia and accept the Saudi offer?
Life did. I think it’s important to seek new experiences and strive for success. Yes, I worked for more than a decade in Africa and feel I was successful there, but it was time for a change. I wanted to continue working with national teams and had received an offer from Saudi Arabia to take charge of the senior side.
I know the Saudi team very well, as they took part in the most recent edition of the World Cup in Russia and are one of Asia’s heavyweights. You can’t turn down that kind of offer. After all, they are a big name within the game, and I think if we work hard, we’ll achieve what we’re aiming for.
You’ve been here less than three months, so how did you get to know the players so quickly and what was your initial plan?
The plan was to watch all the players. Luckily, the national league started and we had four teams playing in the AFC Champions League. During the first squad get-together over 10 days, we got to know each other and established the foundation of our work. Over time, things improved and everyone just wanted to focus on playing. Things also got better off the pitch. The players get on very well with each other. I told them that they must be happy in what they do; wearing the national team shirt is an honour for any player and you must work hard for it.
What do you hope to achieve with Saudi Arabia?
We’ve started the qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup. Our first goal is to finish top of Group D in order to progress to the final round. Another task is to bring fresh faces into the team, but that has to be a gradual process.
There are many outstanding young talents here and we have to give them an opportunity. They won the AFC U-19 Championship and took part in the U-20 World Cup in Poland this year. We’re keen to include young players and hope they gain the necessary experience to help us build a strong team for the future.
In your experience, what are the strengths of Saudi players and how would you rate the first three games of the Qualifiers?
Saudi players are very skilled, which allows them to compete at the highest level across the continent. Four Saudi teams took part in the AFC Champions League and we have seven players in the Al Hilal side that just made it to the final. Obviously, we’re hoping they go on and win the title.
With the national team, we had one friendly against Mali, which was very physical, and then we went straight into the Qualifiers. We’ve played three games so far, beating Singapore at home and drawing away to Yemen and Palestine. This proves that our group is far from easy, with all the teams expecting to win points. We hope to improve soon and start to show our potential in order to make the Saudi fans happy.
Do you have a specific coaching philosophy or certain tactics you like your teams to adhere to?
For me the most important philosophy is to play as a team. We use the width of the pitch to pass the ball and try to move around intelligently. As long as we do this, then we can develop technically and deploy different tactics depending on the game.
Against Singapore, for example, we started with a 4-2-3-1 and the team looked very organised. We put in a good performance and won 3-0. As I said, as long as we have the talent, demonstrate technical maturity, and work as a team, then we can always get better.
Saudi fans were excited about your appointment given the success you had in Africa. Did you feel that?
I know that Saudi fans always want to win and see their team at the highest possible level. We played a friendly in Dammam before taking on Singapore in Qassim. They really got behind us and it was a fantastic atmosphere. We expect more of the same from them in the remaining Qualifiers, as they can be a huge asset for us on this difficult mission.
What can you promise the Saudi fans?
I don't like to make big promises, but I came here aiming to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. I always say that this is our main goal and we’ll do our utmost to achieve it. I expect us to improve and play well in games. When I start working with any team, I tell the players, "You’re not here to get the same privileges you get with your clubs, but because you have the honour of representing your country to the very best of your ability." I’d ask everyone to remain united in helping us achieve our goal.
Can we go back to your time in Africa and, in particular, your wonderful achievements with Zambia? How would you describe that experience?
Yes, when I coached Zambia, the team had a lot of young players who were willing to work hard. They were technically adept and the atmosphere was excellent. They were willing to do everything I said, and we wanted to compete for titles, not just prove ourselves.
At the 2010 AFCON, we made it to the quarter-finals for the first time in 14 years. It was a very good foundation on which to build for the 2012 edition, which was an amazing tournament (smiles). We played very well. In every game we seized our chances and continued winning until we reached the final. The players were very committed and capitalised on that historic opportunity to win the title against Côte d'Ivoire. It was an excellent tournament, though many said it was just a stroke of luck.
Staying on top is always hard, so how did you manage to repeat that success with Côte d'Ivoire in 2015? It must have been special being the first coach to win the title with two different countries.
True, when you win the trophy once, you just want to get your hands on it again. With Côte d'Ivoire, we went into the 2015 edition with our eyes set on the title. The team was full of fantastic players, our relationship was strong and I put my trust in them. With this combination, you can achieve success, regardless of the obstacles you face.
We faced Ghana in the final, which went to penalties. We missed the first two, but I knew it wasn’t over yet; the players wanted to do the impossible and win the title after twice being runners-up. I remember Yaya and Kolo Toure saying that this was the highlight of their careers. They knew the importance of achieving glory with the national team even though they’d won many titles with their clubs in Europe.
You then took Morocco to the World Cup Finals for the first time in 20 years. How was that experience?
It was very special. We set ourselves some goals and we achieved the most important one by qualifying for Russia 2018, where we put in very good performances. We didn’t have great results despite playing better than our opponents. At the personal level, my relationship with the players was excellent. The team spirit was there all the time. During international breaks, even our injured players wanted to come and stay with the team at our camp. I was very happy with the atmosphere.
So, now you’d like to return to the FIFA World Cup only this time with Saudi Arabia?
Yes, certainly. When you experience the atmosphere of a World Cup, you would want to get there again. Nothing beats participating in the world’s greatest football tournament. I’ll work very hard to lead Saudi Arabia to the 2022 Finals.
Sources: FIFA.com, AFP, AFC
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