CAPE TOWN – Claude Le Roy’s record breaking relationship with the African Nations Cup will continue next week when he leads Togo at the tournament in Gabon just months after taking over as their coach and securing them an unexpected spot at the finals.
Togo were a long shot for qualification midway through the campaign but after the 68-year-old arrived in April, they snatched one of the two berths reserved for the best runners-up on the last weekend of qualification.
“We initially had a one percent chance and it got better as the other results went our way. In the end it was almost unimaginable,” he said.
The Frenchman is considered as the Godfather of the Nations Cup, having first guided Cameroon at the 1986 event before going on to coach in a further seven editions.
In a total of 35 matches, he has lifted the trophy only once — when Cameroon won the 1988 edition — but delivered a record of consistency that will strike fear into Togo’s much-vaunted opponents.
Togo are the outsiders in Group C, given little chance by the pundits, after being paired with the holders Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Morocco in the town of Oyem. They start against the Ivorians on Monday.
In eight previous tournaments, Le Roy has guided his teams to at least the quarter-finals on seven occasions. The only failure was with DR Congo in 2013.
Le Roy has also coached Senegal and Ghana at the finals and two years ago took Congo-Brazzaville into the last eight, for the first time in 22 years, only to see his side squander a 2-0 lead and lose to neighbours DR Congo in their quarter-final tie.
A life long love affair with African football, and an itinerant lifestyle, began when he landed the job in Cameroon, recommended by Albert Batteux, one of France’s most successful coaches.
“They announced me as coach and made me do a press conference before I ever signed a contract. It was all very surreal. But we didn’t lose a match for three years and it was a real adventure. I was hooked to the continent after that and I owe it a lot,” he said in a recent interview.
Le Roy’s winning formula has always been to get as immersed in the country as much as possible.
He has called other European coaches who flit in for matches and then go home again “Club Med coaches”.
With his toothy grin, round glasses, blond fringe that flops over his face and a penchant for black t-shirts, Le Roy often looks something of an oddity. But there are few who do not take the wily Frenchman seriously.
“There aren’t many differences between coaching in Europe and Africa except that one day you might be having lunch with the head of state and then the next day you are standing alongside some dusty field looking at a prospective player,” he added.