On Saturday 28 March 2009, the Moroccan fans packing the Mohamed V of Casablanca sports complex could barely believe what they had just witnessed. Up against Group A rivals Gabon, on paper the weakest team in the section, in their first match of the third round of African Zone qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Roger Lemerre's charges went down to a painful 2-1 home reverse.
In stark contrast to the black mood which consumed their hosts, Alain Giresse's Gabon charges were literally jumping for joy at the final whistle. Not that the former member of France's magic midfield quartet of Giresse, Jean Tigana, Luis Fernandez and Michel Platini will let Les Panthères get ahead of themselves - as he told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
FIFA.com: Monsieur Giresse, a month has passed since the win in Morocco. Has the sense of euphoria faded a bit by now?
Alain Giresse: At the risk of shocking you, we never actually let it go to our heads. It's true that this result gave us a great deal of satisfaction but we kept our feet on the ground. We pulled off a mission that we hadn't expected to, but it would be a huge error to get carried away.
Will this match always be one of your most cherished memories from your coaching career?
It's hard to say at this moment. I only usually make my evaluations once a cycle has run its course. It's a good moment, but to go from there to saying it's one of the best... Our continual progress up the [FIFA/Coca-Cola] World Ranking is an even more worthwhile thrill. That is concrete proof of all the work that's been done. [To take] one match in isolation is a bit restrictive.
Did you prepare for that away game any differently than normal?
Yes and no. Of course I'd studied how this Moroccan team play. I travelled to watch them play, I requested scouting reports. But I hadn't foreseen anything out of the ordinary either. A team like Gabon can't afford to leave anything to chance. It was my job to give as much information as possible to my players.
Did you get the impression after the early exchanges that your team were in with a chance?
During the course of a match I try to avoid getting too excited or too down depending on what happens. Which is fortunate because the first ten minutes were all Morocco. But I still had faith. Not letting myself be affected by what's happening is my way of always staying in control of a match and keeping my ability to react.
Did you ever doubt your side?
Yes, at training the day before the game and I can assure you my players understood why. I don't know why but they were doing everything wrong. But from the following day, the day of the match, I could sense their willpower getting stronger bit by bit. And by the time we took the field we were in the best of spirits.
Even so, you had several heavy blows to deal with in the build-up...
Between suspensions and injuries, we were missing four of our key players. And then our star man and captain Daniel Cousin joined up with us only to say that he wouldn't be able to play in the match. I'd be lying to say that I warmly welcomed that piece of news. But I was pragmatic about it, I told myself that I had no choice and needed to focus on the players who were available and prepare them as best I could.
Did the Cousin injury increase the pressure on one of the squad's new faces, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang?
If I called him up for the first time it's because I felt he was ready to play for us. On the other hand, it's true that I didn't think it'd all happen so fast. In the days leading up to the match, I tried to calm him down, to tell him to give it all he had but without doubting himself. They're a good group and they welcome new players marvellously well. He was in the ideal frame of mind and rose to the challenge superbly by scoring our first goal.
Was it hard going back into the dressing room at the break when you were two goals to the good?
Oh yes! When I was walking towards the dressing room I was wondering what I could possibly say to my players. Finally I decided not to mention the score at all in my team talk. I told them that they were having a good match and that they should keep playing the same way. [I told them] to try and pretend the score was still 0-0 and that they should keep putting in the same amount of effort.
At the present time, with three away points already in the bag and three home matches still to play, will you be changing your approach?
I won't be changing anything! It would be a huge error to do so. I'm going to keep a very close eye on my players to make sure they don't get their objectives wrong. We said when the draw was made that we'd try and enjoy ourselves and aim to finish in third place and that's still our goal. Above all, I don't want to hear talk of anything else. We won't get anywhere if we lose our humility and become complacent.
In June your team will come up against Togo and then Cameroon. How will you be approaching these two big matches?
We're going to do our best in these two matches, but it doesn't make sense having a two-week gap between two matches in June, because the players will only be thinking about their holidays. At the same time, playing two continental powerhouses within such a short space of time is not easy psychologically. You need to be able to go quickly from one to the other. I'm going to try and prepare everything in advance.
Do you believe that June will be a decisive month as far as the qualifying race is concerned?
Yes, but don't expect us just to go out to try and avoid defeat. June is always a pivotal month. Certain players are at the end of a season where they've played over 50 club matches, others are in contract renegotiations while others are looking for a new club. It was in June last year that I realised that I could go far with this squad. Their ability to stay focused was such that I knew my players were strong.
So, will you be expecting just as much from them this year?
I expect them to always be just as committed and ready to achieve something big. Then, if they should be beaten by a better team then that's just sport. But the vital thing is to always have the feeling that you gave everything you've got.