Zambia will put their status as champions of Africa on the line from the 19 January at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa. Almost a year after their coronation in Libreville against a heavily favoured Côte d'Ivoire – they won 8-7 in a penalty shootout after a goalless match – the Chipolopolo have inherited a complicated opening group. However Herve Renard, their 44-year-old French coach, insists that the team is ready to defend its greatest-ever achievement.
FIFA.com: Herve Renard, your preparations began in earnest on Saturday, 15 December in Lusaka and will stretch about six weeks. How will it be structured?
This first part of the preparation is with local players, but also those that play for TP Mazembe and in China. On 22 December, we will face Tanzania in Dar Es Salaam. The players then receive three days of rest, and we meet on 26 December in Johannesburg. The rest of the players, those in England and the rest, will join us gradually, and the group will be complete on 8 January. We will play at least three friendlies: on the 5th of January, probably against Swaziland, on the 8th against Morocco and then back home to host Norway in Ndola on the 12th. It is possible that we’ll also have a new match in Johannesburg on the 15th.
As titleholders, you must want to defend your trophy?
Of course. This is natural. We will live up to our responsibilities, even if we are not the favourites in this competition. I often say that at the CAN 2012, we were the best team in the tournament, but not necessarily the best in Africa. We will do the most we can to get as far as possible, and of course to try to keep our title.
Who is your favourite?
Côte d'Ivoire. But in addition to them and Zambia, there are several teams that can win the event: Ghana, South Africa and some big outsiders such as Tunisia, Mali, Algeria and Nigeria.
In 2012, did you have the impression that your team was underrated?
Frankly, no. You know, Zambia for nearly 20 years has been consistently competitive in Africa. They have been regularly present in the finals, often reaching the second round. But our victory probably surprised a lot of people because few expected we would go all the way. I knew we could do something. Now, we focus on the first round, because what awaits us looks complicated.
Who is your main rival in Group C?
I do not underestimate anyone. I am wary of Ethiopia, who eliminated Benin and Sudan, and is a tough team to move. But our two main rivals are Burkina Faso, who in Alain Traore and Jonathan Pitroipa have very good individual players, and of course Nigeria, with Stephen Keshi, have just completed a very successful 2012. The Nigerians were absent last year, and they will want to mark their return.
Is your team stronger for the victory in Libreville?
Zambia turned a corner, that's for sure. We have matured, we have more confidence. It’s progress. In the friendly match we won in South Africa [1-0] in November I felt this impression was confirmed. After the CAN, we again defeated Ghana [1-0] in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, four months after beating them in the semi-finals of the CAN (1-0). These are examples.
Will the side have any major changes?
No. It will be the same group about 80 to 85 per cent. But we will add important players like Emmanuel Mbola [FC Porto], who was suspended for the CAN 2012 as well as Jacob Mulenga [FC Utrecht], Collins Mbesuma [Orlando Pirates] and William Njovu [Hapoel Be’er Sheva], who were not in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon for sporting reasons.
After the success in Libreville, you received several job offers, some very lucrative. Are you still regularly approached?
Yes, there are offers coming from the Persian Gulf, but also China. I could earn more money somewhere, but I have a project in Zambia. It is true that in June, when I was not paid, and I felt that the selection was not put in the best conditions, including transportation, I threatened to leave. Since then, it all came together. It is even possible that I will extend my contract, which will be completed by July 2014. Here nobody interferes in my decisions. I have players I love to work with, although I'm hard on them. I spend a lot of time looking for young players. There is a culture of attacking football that I share, and Zambia is a country that I love. The people are cool and peaceful.
In contrast, clubs from your home country of France have not appeared to show much interest in you?
It is often like this. When you coach in Africa, some do not give you much credibility. Yet there are people like Eric Gerets, Paul Le Guen and Vahid Halilhodzic that led or lead on this continent. But I'm not disappointed. After all, those who run clubs in France perhaps don’t have sufficiently open minds to look at what is happening in Africa.