BY MARC STRYDOM AND REUTERS
Saudi Arabia coach Hervé Renard’s “lucky white shirt” is well known across Africa.
The Frenchman’s legend as a coach on the continent saw him viewed as the equivalent of a sorcerer in African football when he won the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations with unfancied Zambia, then steered Ivory Coast’s previously underachieving golden generation to the 2015 title
On Tuesday, the white shirt and Renard’s abilities as a coaching magician made their global entrance, and then some.
Saudi Arabia were a goal behind to Lionel Messi’s penalty for Argentina going into the break of the teams’ 2022 Qatar World Cup Group C opening match at the packed 80,000-seat Lusail Stadium, and most global viewers were wondering where the South American giants’ next goal would come from.
The world forgot Renard’s Saudi Arabia, while the second-lowest ranked team in the competition, have dangerous forwards as Saleh al Shehri struck in the 48th minute and Salem Al Dawsari five minutes later.
The fired-up Saudis defended the lead like their lives depended on it for the rest of the half.
Renard and his white shirt had struck again as one of the tournament favourites were left reeling and in shock.
The coach has admitted he is superstitious, hence the trademark shirt.
“I won two Africa Cup of Nations on a white shirt, so you want me to change for what?” Renard once told Ghana’s TV3.
“During the penalty shoot-out for the 2015 Afcon final between Ivory Coast and Ghana we missed the first two but went ahead to win. So do you want me to wear a red shirt for the next Afcon I am in charge of a team. No. Not possible.
“Sometimes I am superstitious. That will never change.”
It remains to be seen if Saudi Arabia can maintain the intensity in their remaining group matches against Poland and Mexico. Their fans — including the many thousands who crossed the border to be in the stadium on Tuesday — will long celebrate their team’s stunning victory and Renard could quickly become a national hero.
Saudi Arabia had never previously won their first match at a World Cup, suffering a humiliating 8-0 defeat by Germany in 2002 and a 5-0 loss to Russia in 2018.
“When I decided to coach this team three years ago, I found all the support. We have a great federation president and also the ministry of sports,” Renard said after the victory.
“When we met with Prince [Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince]. He did not put any pressure on us, and this is wonderful. Being pressured does not work every time.” Renard is not only a fine technical coach but also a powerful motivator.
“We had a crazy coach who gave us instructions and motivated us strongly at half time,” Saudi Arabia midfielder Abdel-Ilah al-Maliki told Al-Kass TV.
“I swear to God I was crying and the coach motivated us and we wanted to start the match from the morning. I can’t describe what happened.”
Renard has called on Saudi fans for more support in his team’s remaining matches.
“Argentina are the champion of the Copa America and had not lost in the last 36 games, but you know what happens when a small team plays as we are neighbours of Qatar,” he said.
“This contributed to the presence of a large number of our fans in the stadium. We had to think about it and think about the 35-million Saudis who waited for this match.
Renard said he had stressed the importance of the game to his team.
“I told the players life will stop in Saudi Arabia today, and everyone will wait for this match. The number of fans was large, but I hope it will be even larger.”