At just 46, Paul Le Guen is the second youngest coach present at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, one year older than Slovakia’s Vladimir Weiss. He is also part of a batch of recent appointments at the head of competing sides, having been charged with the task of leading the Lions indomptables under a year ago. But while he is relatively new to the job, the Breton has a vast amount of coaching experience under his belt.
Cameroon may be the first national side that he has coached, but ‘PLG’, who holds a degree in economics, had previously built himself a solid reputation at club level, since hanging up his boots back in 1998. In fact, it was only a few weeks after his retirement as a player that he was given the opportunity to show what he could do as a coach, Rennes’ directors deciding that a new approach was needed. In his first year at Stade de la Route de Lorient, the club qualified for Europe. However, two seasons down the line, just as he was beginning to make real progress with the team, a contract extension was not forthcoming.
Instead of simply leaping on the first subsequent offer that materialised, Le Guen decided to take a year off from football. During this sabbatical, he travelled extensively, taking counsel with numerous sporting figures the world over. And then, in the spring of 2002, he would attend one of the most important meetings of his career. Jacques Santini, fresh from guiding Lyon to their first-ever French Championship, had just been offered the reins of the national team, leaving a vacancy at Stade Gerland. Jean-Michel Aulas, chairman of Les Gones, had made Le Guen his top priority, and his plans for the club appealed to the former Nantes defender. The happy marriage lasted three seasons, during which time Lyon won the league title every year, and appeared in two UEFA Champions League quarter-finals, just losing out on penalties in one of them. In addition, the team played in an extremely attractive style that many observers feel has not been matched since. Despite this unprecedented success, Le Guen took the decision himself this time not to prolong his contract, opting instead for another year out of the limelight.
In May 2006, a rejuvenated Le Guen felt ready to take on a challenge abroad. His choice was a surprising one: Rangers, in Scotland. After Dutchman Dick Advocaat, he was the club’s second-ever foreign manager in over a century. Unfortunately, it was to be an experience to forget for the Frenchman, with internal strife and bad results forcing his departure from Ibrox stadium after just six months in charge. This time around, he chose his next move quickly, taking the helm at the club he had served as a player, Paris Saint-Germain.
An elegant defensive midfielder and sweeper in a seven-year stint (1991-98, 345 matches) at the Parc des Princes, his cultured left foot had made him a firm favourite with the Paris faithful. As coach, he was not destined to enjoy the same level of support. Although the club did capture the French League Cup during his tenure, his time was marked by two successive relegation battles, which, while ultimately successful, tested the patience of directors and fans alike. Season 2008/09 saw results improve considerably, but finished without European qualification, signalling the end of his reign.
Le Guen manoeuvred his career in a new direction in July 2009, taking over at the head of a struggling Cameroon team that was riven by internal conflict. He ironed out these issues and brought in numerous promising young players; the strategy was a success, with qualification for South Africa 2010 secured in the final qualifying match. This will be Le Guen’s first FIFA World Cup, as despite 17 caps for France – including one as captain – he missed out on USA 94 following Emil Kostadinov’s infamous last-minute goal in the final qualifying match against Bulgaria. Having avoided such disappointment with his newly-adopted country, he can now look forward to springing a surprise or two on Cameroon’s Group E rivals in June.