Zambia's Renard ready to face Nigeria
When defending champions Zambia were drawn in the same group as Nigeria, the day of their clash was immediately anointed as the salient tie of the group stages. Zambia are the antithesis of Nigeria. They’ve built a squad patiently around their coach Hervé Renard and seem to have in former national team star Kalusha Bwalya an executive who is alive to the rigours of the modern game.
In the years since the teams met in the quarter-finals in Angola, Nigeria have won the battle of coach turnover. Two have come and gone since Shaiba Amodu led the Nigerians to the semi-finals.
Hervé Renard - give or take a quick flirtation with Angola - has been an ever-present in Zambia and he led them to the crown in Gabon last year.
Seeing Zambia as kings must be galling for Nigeria, given their pedigree. Whoever wins the clash in Nelspruit will be a step closer to the knockout stages.
“We were very disappointed with the draw against Ethiopia so we’re going to try to do better against Nigeria,” comments Zambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene.
Renard is famous for his motivational nous. Written on a whiteboard in the team meeting room are the words “Never live in the past. Always learn from it.”
He says he is undaunted by the challenge of the game against Nigeria. “We are never scared of our opponents. If you start to be scared you go onto the pitch in the wrong way. The strength of the team is the team spirit. It is to be confident and to think we are able to compete with everybody.
“We showed in the past that we were able to compete with the best teams in Africa. The Nigerians are one of the best teams in Africa.”
Renard has been at pains to take responsibility for his team’s draw against Ethiopia. Leading 1-0 he said he made a substitution hoping that it would bring a second goal. The move backfired and now the champions face a difficult game.
“The players did their best against Ethiopia but there’s no extra pressure," he says. “I think it’s better to be African champions once in your life than to spend it running after the crown and never winning it.
“The level in Africa is tough. It’s not like once ago when you were in one group and you were sure of finishing first or second. It has changed and we have two chances to finish first or second.The key to the door is in our hands.”
One of Renard’s main decisions will be whether he keeps the robust presence of Collins Mbesuma up front or inserts the silky mobility of Emmanuel Mayuka into the attack. Skipper Christopher Katongo will also be looking for a more decisive game. He was substituted in the opening match gainst Ethiopia.
“I took the risk against Ethiopia and it didn’t work,” says Renard. “But that’s sport. Back in 2010 we lost our second match but we still qualified.
“What I want in a few days is to be in a position where we can still qualify. Nothing more than that. There’s always too much praise when you win and too much criticism when you lose. You have to keep your humility when you are on top.”