New Zambia coach Herve Renard has been cast into the deep end in his first high-profile job but the smiling Frenchman believes that he has trained under the best.
Renard was appointed Zambia coach in mid-May, just weeks before the southern African nation started its 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying campaign, and has had to find his feet quickly in the rigours of international competition.
But Renard comes into the job after working for the last two years at the side of one of the most successful exponents of the coaching craft in the African game - Claude Le Roy. "He's been my father in football," the 39-year-old says of his 60-year-old compatriot. "."
"We spent many hours in deep discussion about African football. Even now, whenever I have to take a decision, I think about what would he do in a similar situation."
Renard, a former player at AS Cannes in France, will adopt the Le Roy philosophy even more closely as Zambia prepare to host their next FIFA World Cup qualifier. The game against Togo was set for the weekend, but has now been postponed until 10 September because of the official mourning period decreed in the country following the death of Zambia president Levy Mwanawasa.
Victory for the Zambians would assure them of top place in their group, and progress to the last phase of the African qualifiers, which will start in March. The match against Togo is Zambia's last in their three-team group, which they have found a struggle.
"It will be a tough game. We scored in the last seconds when we played Togo at the end of May, but the referee refused the goal. The players deserved a draw."
After this loss against the Togolese, the Zambians' hopes looked to be dashed after they were held to a goalless draw in Swaziland. A week later they beat the Swazis at home somewhat unconvincingly, with a controversial late penalty. "It has been frustrating, but I hope we'll be much improved for the Togo game. Everything is in our own hands."
Renard feels that Zambia is a side full of potential. "We have some big players," he says, referring to the likes of Bundesliga-based Chris Katongo and Isaac Chansa, who plays in Sweden. "The problem for us is the depth on the bench. If we lose key players, then it is very difficult to get the right quality replacement. My task is to keep looking to expand the talent pool. I have been looking at younger players to build a team."
Renard, who turns 40 at the end of the month, says expectations of qualification for a first ever FIFA World Cup finals appearance must be tempered. Zambia and South Africa have been fierce rivals in the region and, the Zambians have their hearts set on reaching the 2010 tournament.
"It's difficult to stop the dreams of everyone in Zambia, but we have to be realistic," cautions the coach. "The qualifiers are very competitive, and you also need a bit of luck with the draw. Also important is the spirit in the squad, the dynamic of the group. That is what I work hard on," he insists.
Zambia has been a dream job for Renard, plucked from obscurity by the new president of the Football Association of Zambia, Kalusha Bwalya. "For a young coach to get this opportunity is fantastic. I have no idea why he picked me, but I jumped at the chance. I've been coaching for the last 10 years and my ambition is to go as high as I can in this job."