From Cleaner To Stardom: The Magic Touch Of The Underrated Coach

By Matthew Ma
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Matthew Ma

“If measures are not put in place by the country to catch up with football development, we may not recognize football as the number one sport in the nearest future. Soccer might leave Nigeria as a top sport soon.”

Football is arguably one of the best sports in the world. From Africa to Asia and Europe, football has effectively evolved into the top game on this planet. The USA and Australia are probably the only countries left in the world where soccer is not one of the top three most popular sports. In soccer, players often take much publicity and limelight, but managers do not always get the credit they deserve. Players last longer in a team but managers do not when teams perform poorly. They are sacked and replaced by new ones. Football managers are just as crucial to the success of a football club. They are responsible for what happens on and off the pitch and behind every team. The game cannot be what it is without them. Throughout history, soccer has seen countless head coaches. However, only a few have left their mark on the beautiful game. Manchester United icon Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsenal legend Arsene Wenger have cemented a legacy for what they did in their managerial careers. Another iconic coach is Jose Mourinho, whose career took off after leading Portugal giants Porto to an unlikely Champions League triumph in 2004. Today, there are underrated managers who get overshadowed by important names or gain the misfortune of coaching for small or little-known teams. Here, we look at one of the most underrated managers in world football.

One of the most underrated coaches is Herve Jean-Marie Roger Renard. Born on 30 September 1968 in Aix-les-Bains, Renard played as a defender for French sides AS Cannes, Stade de Vallauris, and SC Draguignan in a playing career from 1983 to 1998. After retiring as a professional player, he worked at Draguignan as a cleaner, eventually setting up his own cleaning company. Renard managed several clubs in Europe and Asia before accepting the Zambia job. In 2008, he was appointed manager of the Zambia national team. At the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations, he led Zambia to the quarterfinals for the first time in 14 years. But Renard left his duties as the Zambia manager in 2010 with only two months remaining on his contract. Two days later, he accepted to become the manager of Angola but resigned from his position as Angola manager in October 2010. In October 2011, Renard returned as the coach of Zambia on a one-year contract. He led the team to their first victory in the African Cup of Nations in 2012. After Zambia got eliminated from the group stages of the 2013 African Cup of Nations, the Football Association of Zambia relieved Renard of his duties as the coach of the Zambia National team. But in 2015, the Ivory Coast football federation appointed Renard as their manager. He won the African Cup of Nations with Ivory Coast, becoming the first coach to win two Africa Cup of Nations with different countries. He left Ivory Coast in 2016, but in February of that same year, the Moroccan FA appointed Renard national team coach. On November 2017, he qualified Morocco for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, their first since 1998. After losing to Iran 1 – 0 and Portugal 1 – 0 in 2018, Morocco produced a superb display to draw 2-2 with Spain. In July 2019, when Moroccan could not make it to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Renard took responsibility for the exit and resigned a few days later. Later in July 2019, he became the manager of Saudi Arabia, the first Frenchman to do so. In March 2022, Renard led Saudi Arabia to qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In the process became the foreign-born manager with the most wins (18) in the history of Saudi football. On 22 November 2022, Renard led Saudi Arabia to its first-ever World Cup opening match victory in a historic 2–1 upset victory over deeply favored Argentina.

It is not every day you come back to beat World Cup favorites Argentina. So, what sort of manager is needed to mastermind such an unbelievable result? He is an underrated manager who is not known globally but suddenly became a world hero. Saudi Arabia had never before won their first match at a World Cup. In 2002, they suffered a humiliating 8-0 defeat by Germany and a 5-0 loss to Russia in 2018. On November 22, 2022, the Saudi Arabia team fell behind to an early Lionel Messi penalty. But Leonard fought back with a rousing team talk at halftime to seal a 2-1 victory over the two-time world champions. That team talk at halftime sparked a successful counterattack against Argentina. While there are several talking points to the game, including three disallowed goals, Saudi Arabia’s coach, Herve Renard, has won a lot of admiration from fans. Many believe his success against Argentina underlines his skillful use of mind games. According to the Saudi captain, Renard is not only a technical adviser; he is also a powerful motivator. In his words: He is a crazy coach who gave them instructions and motivated them strongly during halftime. He stressed the importance of that game to the players on the field. Renard is the type of manager that every country desire to have as a coach.

Back to home soil, Nigerian Football Federation has had a history of sacking coaches before a major tournament. More often than not, the changing of coaches has turned out not to have the desired effect. 1994 is widely accepted as the turning point in Nigerian football as the Eagles won the AFCON trophy and performed superbly at their first-ever World Cup appearance that year. Since 1994, the first time Nigeria substituted its national team coach just before a major international tournament was in late 1999 when NFF assigned Jo Bonfrere ahead of the 2000 AFCON co-hosted by Nigeria and Ghana. The first competitive game of Bonfrere Jo after his reappointment as the head coach was in the group stage of the AFCON as Nigeria defeated Tunisia 4-2. The Dutchman went on to lead the Super Eagles to the finals before eventually losing to penalties to Cameroon. After Bonfrere, the late Shuaibu Amodu took over as the Super Eagles head coach and qualified the nation for the 2002 AFCON and World Cup tournaments. NFF sacked Amodu after Nigeria finished third in the 2002 AFCON ahead of the World Cup that same year. Festus Onigbinde was appointed as the man to lead the team to Korea/Japan in 2002, with Nigeria seeking to continue the record of making it to the knockout stage of every World Cup tournament they played. However, the team did not do any better than it would have under Amodu, as Nigeria finished bottom of the group with only a point and a goal. If sacking Amodu in 2002 ahead of the World Cup was unfair, doing so again in 2010 must-have stung the late coach. Nigeria failed to go past the quarter-final of the 2008 AFCON for the first time since 1982, with Berti Vogts as the manager and Amodu hired as his replacement to pick up the scraps and qualify the nation for the 2010 AFCON and World Cup tournaments. Amodu successfully qualified Nigeria for both tournaments without losing a single game and even took Nigeria further than Vogts did at the AFCON as the Super Eagles finished third in the 2010 tournament. Again, the NFF felt that Amodu was not fit to lead Nigeria to the World Cup, despite his relative success while in charge, and sacked him just a few months into the tournament, with Lars Lagerback coming in as his replacement. Nigeria appointed Lagerback hoping the Swede would qualify the team for at least the knockout stage of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Unfortunately, the Super Eagles failed to qualify out of a group with Argentina, Greece, and South Korea. This display is no worse than what they did under Amodu had he been allowed to lead the team to the tournament.

If Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) sacks a coach before a tournament, Nigerians should not expect a miracle from a new coach who would take over the team. No coach can fully implement his ideas with one or two friendly matches before the AFCON. Jo Bonfrere is the only exception in history where every appointment of a new coach before a major tournament has failed. The Dutchman took half of his famous 1996 Atlanta squad to AFCON 2000. It is little surprise that he guided the team to a good outing within the short time he had to prepare. Sacking Rohr eventually may be the right decision for the national team to move forward but doing so with the AFCON very close proved to be the wrong decision historically. If they had sacked him after the AFCON, ten months would be enough time for a new coach to qualify and lead Nigeria to a good outing at the World Cup in November next year.

What is the ultimate underdog story behind Renard and Saudi Arabia's rise to stardom? After a disappointing spell as Morocco's head coach - which saw the north African side eliminated in the 2018 World Cup group stages - Renard joined the Saudi Arabia National team in 2019. Since his appointment, the national side has moved up from 70th to 51st in the FIFA world rankings and topped their recent World Cup qualifying group that included Japan and Australia. After that success, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) announced that Renard had signed an extension to his current deal until 2027. The country is already thinking about the longevity, solidification, stability, prolongation, and consistency of its team to stardom. Saudi Arabia is known to open their hearts and purse to their World Cup goal-scorers. In their World Cup debut in 1994, they were 500-1 outsiders, yet they raised the bar on the big stage. Against Belgium, they scored a goal that for long was considered the best-ever goal of the country. Striker Saeed Al-Owairan came with a magical 70-yard run to find the net. The government promised Al-Owairan a Rolls-Royce once he returned home. The home of Al Dawsar and Al Shehri upgraded their garages. Divesting from the top four Saudi Pro League domestic football clubs in the last few years, the Saudi state kick-started a system that freed their running from excessive top-down control. The team is almost entirely home-based, owing to the financial clout. But that does not necessarily equate to state ownership. Today, Saudi Arabia is privatizing those clubs because the Saudi government believes privatizing the team forces them to become more business-like and strategic in how they can operate. They are not constantly looking for state handouts, for a state to tell them what to do. They have got to make revenue and good commercial decisions. They have to manage labor, their players, and their passion, and there are lessons for excessive state intervention. Ranked 48 places lower than Argentina, Saudi had lost to Venezuela, Colombia, and Croatia in the friendlies, besides the wretched memories of the 5-0 loss to Russia in 2018 and 8-0 to Germany in 2002. Yet, they have pedigrees: this tournament is their sixth World Cup, they reached the last 16 in 1994, and they made it to Qatar by topping their group ahead of Japan.

What is wrong with Nigerian football today? Is there a lesson that Nigerians could learn from Saudi Arabia and Renard? Of course, everything is not working in Nigeria. From political leadership to football administration, things have fallen apart, and the center cannot hold. Coaching instability and inappropriate managerial appointments with the Nigerian team often denied the consistency, familiarity, or serenity that comes with administrative stability. The Super Eagles often have last-minute coaching reshuffles. Think of Nigeria parting ways with coaches like Jo Bonfrere and Philippe Troussier before appointing Bora Milutinovic only six months before the 1998 World Cup. The appointment of Lars Lagerback four months before the 2010 World Cup hindered our chances of doing well. Recently, the Nigeria Football Federation sacked Gernot Rohr as a coach due to poor performances. The German national, who had been the Super Eagles coach since August 2016, was sacked and replaced by Augustine Eguavoen. Before leaving the job, Mr. Rohr said he was not the problem, but many people did not believe him. His assertion leads me to the statement made by late coach Amodu Shuaibu, who once said the national team has average players who cannot offer more than what they have. What he said was true, yet the NFF leadership reprimanded him because they were too blind to see the steady decline in the quality of the national team. Rohr led Nigeria to the 2018 World Cup and guided the team to third place at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt. Though Rohr qualified the Eagles for the last edition of the Africa Cup in Cameroon, he came under fire for poor displays against lowly-rated opponents. Augustine Eguavoen took over a few months before the African Cup of Nations but stepped down from his role as the Nigerian coach in the wake of failing to qualify the Super Eagles for the World Cup. The NFF sacked his staff but left the Executive Committee to function. Too often, the Super Eagles have found themselves lumbered with new managers on the eve of a tournament imposed by the football federation. Attempting to learn new approaches on the eve of the World Cup is often challenging. The new coaches also fail because they do not fully understand the Nigerian culture, mentality, and lifestyle or have little knowledge about Nigerian players. Also, there is the question of the role of the state. In Nigeria, where there is a high level of state interference, the government usually runs football activities in conjunction with the football federation, particularly with the selection of players, administration of football, employment of coaches, and financial independence. Quite often, the interest and hunger to hire a big-name and high-profile coach create tension between the government and NFF. In the end, the NFF leaders use the pretext of hiring foreign coaches to embezzle money, while the national team continue to dwindle at their expense.

Corruption has continued to raise its ugly head in every sport in Nigeria. It has led to poor development and performance of the local game. Most often, players are not chosen by merit but by who they know in top political offices or society. In the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), corruption is the cause of why somebody gets elected as the leader of the group today. But the next day, the football governing body reversed the election, replacing him with another person. Everyone wants to take the lead and fill his bag with the country cake. Those vying for positions in the NFF have little interest in improving the game. They go for NFF positions for selfish interests or self-aggrandizement. Our NFF leaders often travel abroad in the name of looking for coaches. It is only in Nigeria that our administrators go to foreign countries to interview coaches instead of inviting the coaches that want the job to come to Nigeria. As we move toward the final stage of the 2023 general election, we urge all those with the privilege and duty to vote for people whose decisions will impact our lives, families, and communities. We should vote for leaders with an interest in developing our young talents. Anything short of this runs the risk of undermining the football that has been so integral to Nigerian greatness. The national team, a beacon of national pride, is already a microcosm of the country’s polarized politics. In a nation where children dream of rising out of the ghetto on soccer talent, a good political leader will ensure he develops sports and use them to heal the divided nation. What type of political leader in Nigeria fits that description that may come to mind? It is hard to name one modern-time leader. However, the opposite is a much easier task. I have not seen a leader with football at heart in recent times. While other countries have ensured that football does not have obstacles during the prolonged disruption of football due to COVID-19, the NFF has failed to develop strategic measures for the future. Such poor planning is a major factor now affecting the Nigerian national team in international engagements. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, some countries, in Africa and overseas, were testing players and putting safety measures in place to ensure their league is still on. The countries that allowed football activities to go on despite the pandemic understand that a break in football could affect the performance and psychology of players for a long time. Sadly, our leaders did not understand or care about ways to ensure our football survives and continues to grow. We cannot expect a coach to assemble a football team with players that have not been regular in the game and expect a good result. It cannot happen. This notion is what the Nigeria team is facing at the moment. As the election draws near, we call on the citizens to take personal responsibility, show some commitment, and vote for credible leaders who have the country at heart and would see Nigeria football as their project.

Let us step up plans to revamp the beautiful game at all levels. Let us begin from the academy by recruiting young talents from secondary school games, grassroots championships, and national junior football championships. In those days, young talents were selected from these institutions and trained for almost two years before embarking on major championships. These days, such structures are no longer in place. While other countries are working hard to improve their football and catch up with the top footballing countries of the world, Nigeria is still foot-dragging. Today, churches, crusades, and motor parks have occupied every space meant for football activities. If measures are not put in place by the country to catch up with football development, we may not recognize football as the number one sport in the nearest future. Soccer might leave Nigeria as a top sport soon.

Rev. Ma, S.J, is a Jesuit Catholic priest and doctoral student in public and social policy at St. Louis University in the state of Missouri, USA.

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