LYON, France (Reuters) - Barely known in his native France, former cleaning company executive Herve Renard is about to make a name for himself after coaching Zambia to their third African Nations Cup final.
Zambia have never been African champions but meet Ivory Coast on Sunday as they bid to finally clinch a title they were so close to in 1974 and 1994.
When he realised as a teenager he was never going to make the grade as a top professional player, Renard switched to coaching French amateurs sides but never got a chance with a first division team.
“I am not in the who’s who,” the 43-year-old told Reuters by telephone from Gabon.
“I took out the rubbish for eight years and now I‘m about to coach in the African Nations Cup final. Soccer is magical right?”
At the age of 15, he landed in Cannes to train in one of the finest French soccer academies of the time.
“I was one of the best,” said a man who played with future World Cup winners Marcel Desailly and Didier Deschamps in their teenage years.
“But as soon as I was confronted by top players, I realised I was not that good. I ended up as an average third-tier player.”
After his playing career fell apart, he set up a cleaning business which he owned for almost a decade.
“I often remember those years when I got up at 3 in the morning to go clean buildings, it helps keep all this in perspective,” he said.
However, Renard never gave up soccer and started coaching with sixth-tier Vallauris and Draguignan on the Cote d‘Azur.
It helped him catch the attention of former Cameroon coach Claude Le Roy, whom he followed around the world as an assistant at clubs and national sides.
Renard took sole charge of Zambia in 2008.
After leading “the Copper Bullets” to the Nations Cup quarter-finals in 2010, Renard left but he could not help returning when they called him back late in 2011.
“On November 15, for our first game against Nigeria, I said to myself: ‘What am I doing... it’s a disaster’”, he said about a game Zambia lost.
Now Renard believes his own story can inspire his team to upset favourites Ivory Coast on Sunday having already shocked much-fancied Ghana 1-0 in Wednesday’s semi-final.
“Most of our players don’t have the same background as other Africans, who play with top European clubs like Manchester City,” he said.
“I have always believed in myself. Here in Africa, they recognise my skills. Now we have a final to play and we have to win. No matter how, we have to win.”