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Last Updated: Monday, 16 February, 2004, 07:43 GMT
Lemerre: From zero to hero
By Saj Chowdhury

Roger Lemerre picks up his winner's medal
Lemerre picks up his winner's medal
Tunisia coach Roger Lemerre has leapt from zero to hero in the space of just 18 months.

By leading the Carthage Eagles to their first-ever African Cup of Nations, he has proved to the Tunisia football federation that it was a wise decision to appoint a man whose coaching credentials had taken a battering 18 months ago.

The cause of this was France's World Cup 2002 campaign - or perhaps, lack of it.

Then world and European champions, France were unceremoniously dumped out of the tournament after failing to qualify from their group.

It was a particularly bitter episode for Lemerre who had won the Euro 2000 title with almost entirely the same set of players.

The most negative reaction towards Lemerre did not come from the French fans or media but from the French football federation, who sacked him after he refused to stand down.

Although some newspapers did call for Lemerre to resign, most blamed the players and injuries to star performers Zinedine Zidane and Robert Pires.

That was little consolation to a man who had put his heart into leading France to greater things only for it to be then smashed into pieces in the Far East.

Lemerre could have been forgiven for pondering retirement, but the Tunisian football federation were determined to wipe that thought from his mind by asking the Frenchman to take charge of the national team.

With the offer of a good contract, hours of sunshine and break from the country where he was vilified, it did not take Lemerre long to accept the dangling carrot.

"I was delighted to return to a country which has always held out its hand every time I've been shaken in France," he said.

A Tunisia supporter shows his gratitude towards the French coach
A Tunisia supporter shows his gratitude towards the French coach

He took the job in November 2002 and was already planning ahead.

"The 2004 African Cup of Nations is as much a challenge for the Tunisian national team as it is for me," said Lemerre.

It certainly was a challenge for side which had only previously made two final appearances at the tournament.

The omens were also against Frenchman.

The last time Tunisia hosted the Cup of Nations, in 1994, they lost 2-0 to Mali in the opening match and never made it past the group stage.

The last Frenchman to coach the side, Henri Michel, was sacked after Tunisia's poor performance in Mali at the 2002 African Cup of Nations.

Lemerre was undeterred by the history and took steps to building a side opponents would find hard to beat.

Arguably, it was the dogged and disciplined defensive tactic instilled by him into the Tunisia side that was key factor to success at this year's championship.

The players showed in the final against a potent Morocco attack, how hungry and single-minded they were about the task ahead.

"I just have to thank the players," said Lemerre after the final.

"They are the ones who worked hard and who have made history."

Lemerre has also made history by becoming the first coach to win major championships on two continents.

But for the Frenchman, his satisfaction probably came from proving to the world he was still a good coach.

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