Why Renard's Morocco can cause World Cup upset
In his first guest column with KweséESPN, former Zambia assistant coach and Queens Park Rangers opposition analyst Irfan Kawri outlines why he believes Morocco's Herve Renard can oversee a major World Cup upset this summer.
The Atlas Lions may have been pitted against Spain, Portugal and Iran in an ominous group, but Kawri is confident that the French coach has shown enough during his time in African football to deliver a surprise or two in Russia ...
Herve Renard is probably the most successful foreign coach in Africa, and his record speaks for itself: two Africa Cup of Nations titles -- one with Zambia and one with Ivory Coast -- and World Cup qualification with Morocco.
One of the first things I remember when I joined the Chipolopolo as assistant coach was that he left an amazing effect on the people of Zambia.
Even before I arrived in the country, people were messaging me and saying 'make sure you wear a white shirt like Renard, be tough on the players like Renard, you can be like Renard', such was his impact.
When I joined the team, and probably because I was coming from Europe, staff would tell me stories about Renard, so he obviously had an amazing influence over the nation.
What we need to remember is that Renard had two stints with the Chipolopolo, between 2008 and 2010, and then 2011-2013.
Kalusha Bwalya was a key figure in Renard's success, as he was the president of FAZ at the time and he had a lot of faith in and patience with him.
Renard had a lot of time to work with the players and get to know them, but he also invested a lot of time in embracing the Zambian culture. I know that he's approached life in Morocco in a similar fashion.
This made it easier for him to quickly instil his philosophy and ethos into the national-team set up, but he was also a very good man manager and had an excellent rapport with the players. They would run through brick walls for him.
There was a good balance of pure hard work and discipline in the camp, and off the field he reached out to his players and staff.
Again, you can see from the outside that he's replicated this approach in North Africa, and Morocco's desire, unity and togetherness are notable qualities as they head to Russia.
Renard was tactically very astute, and had the right balance of defending, attacking and getting his players to make the right decisions in offensive and defensive transitional periods.
It's no surprise to me that Morocco had the best defensive record in Africa - not conceding a goal - as they qualified for the World Cup. Of course, however, that solidity and the individuals' decision-making will be tested in Russia.
The group of players he had in Zambia were largely in their prime as well, and the likes of Kennedy Mweene, Stophira Sunzu, Rainford Kalaba, Nathan Sinkala, Isaac Chansa, Christopher Katongo and Emmanuel Mayuka was a fine base upon which to build a squad.
Nonetheless, Renard deserves credit for getting the absolute best out of these players, all of whom arguably peaked under his guidance.
Patrice Beaumelle, who will be alongside Renard in Russia, was a very good trainer, and underneath the duo's tutelage, the team developed that nous and know-how of good game management and getting results.
Results are critical for Renard, and I expect him to demonstrate at the World Cup that he knows how to manage a match in order to get the job done.
Ultimately, Renard created an excellent synergy and camaraderie with Zambia - and this is a talent that deserves immense acknowledgement.
He created a real spirit, and he was the one who used to bring local Zambian music and play it in the changing rooms before games.
The scenes that have always stayed with me are of him dancing with the players after the AFCON triumph.
Dancing is big part of the dressing-room culture in Zambia -- I was asked to do a dance before I led my first session in front of the staff and players, and this kind of stuff really matters and leaves an impression on the guys in the team.
With Ivory Coast, Herve went onto work with players who were playing in Europe's top leagues - the likes of Gervinho, the Toure brothers, Wilfried Bony, Serge Aurier, Eric Bailly and Salomon Kalou for example -- and he demonstrated that he can get the best out of bigger egos.
As other coaches have demonstrated, it's hard to install that same approach of hard work and disciple with elite players, but Renard succeeded in establishing his ethos and philosophy with them as well.
For Morocco, ahead of the World Cup, he has the experience of tournament football and winning international trophies, so he will be well prepared for Russia.
As Renard's assistant and Morocco great Mustapha Hadji said, as per The Guardian, the coach has built an atmosphere and spirit within the group, and has brought in a more professional approach.
It's made a big difference, as having just quality isn't enough to succeed.
Renard's positive impact has clearly been evident in the qualifying campaign, as they finished atop their group without conceding a single goal while scoring 11 goals in six.
He has definitely brought discipline and organisation, particularly without the ball, to the Atlas Lions, and that, along with the team's creativity, should ensure a good balance heading into Russia.
If there is going to be an upset in the group, then Renard's side - rather than Iran -- are the ones with the real potential to do that to either Spain or Portugal.
Morocco have players playing in Europe's top leagues, and they're bolstered by players who were born overseas with Moroccan heritage - such as captain Medhi Benatia of Juventus, Southampton forward Sofiane Boufal, Galatasaray playmaker Younes Belhanda and the rising star from Real Madrid, Achraf Hakimi.
With Renard at the helm, I think there's real reason for optimism among the Moroccan public, and I'm tipping the Atlas Lions to be one of this summer's surprise packages.