Luck, sweat and chaos - how comeback kings Ivory Coast made it to the AFCON final
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The Africa Cup of Nations 2023 comes to a close on Sunday, with host nation the Ivory Coast on the brink of completing one of the most astonishing comebacks in the sport’s history. Three weeks ago, they were firing their head coach after a humiliating group stage defeat. Now, they face Nigeria for the biggest prize in African football. Getting here hasn’t been easy, but is had made for one of the most remarkable stories of a tournament packed with them.
Jean-Louis Gasset was appointed by the Ivorian football association, the FIF, in 2022, despite the fact that he had never managed at international level and didn’t have any experience of African football. The 70-year-old had managed several teams in France over more than two decades of coaching but had never lasted longer than two and a half years in a job and hadn’t won a single trophy. His shoulders were not built to carry the weight of a nation’s expectations through a major tournament in its own back yard.
The Elephants endured a torrid group stage. They opened the tournament with a comfortable enough 2-0 win over Guinea-Bissau, but lost to Nigeria before enduring the humiliation of a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of relative minnows Equatorial Guinea. The Ivory Coast had plenty of big names on show, but they were shattered by a team whose entire squad would cost a club less than Franck Kessié alone. They were humbled and humiliated on home soil, and would have been out of the competition under the old AFCON format, before it was expanded to feature an extra round.
As it was, they slid through to a last 16 showdown with reigning champions Senegal, but Gasset and his assistant were fired as soon as the debacle against Equatorial Guinea was put in the books. The FIF and their controversial president Yacine Diallo, whose house in Abidjan ended up under the protection of armed guards amid rising public frustration with results and his management of the federation, turned to a more junior member of the staff, former Reading midfielder Emerse Faé, who had never managed a senior football team before. It all had the feel of a disaster spiralling out of control. And yet…
Faé wasn’t even the first choice to take over after Gasset was unceremoniously dumped. Diallo made a rather audacious and unprecedented attempt to ‘loan’ Hervé Renard, the manager of the French national women’s team who has coached several African nations in the past (including the Ivorians in 2014 and 2015). That, unsurprisingly, failed, amid criticism from regional media over what appeared to be a chaotic decision-making process.
But against all odds Faé turned the ship around. With a game against a star-studded Senegal side looming and the odds stacked against the Ivory Coast, the new interim coach rang the changes. Six players who started against Equatorial Guinea were dropped, including big names like Kessié and Nicolas Pépé. Gasset’s adventurous but poorly co-ordinated 4-3-3 was thrown out in favour of a more rigid 4-2-3-1 formation that gave Saudi Arabia-based Seko Fofana a central creative role and asked veteran Hull City midfielder Jean Michaël Seri to protect the defence.
And it worked – just about. The Ivorians have demonstrated extraordinary resilience to make it to the final, but luck has played its part. Against Senegal they struggled to create but saw the favourites fluff their lines on a number of occasions as a combination of nerves and the oppressive heat and humidity in Yamoussoukro took their toll – but it still took a late penalty from Kessié, substituted back in to redeem himself, just to get the game to a shootout.
Then, against Mali in the quarter-finals, a ten-man Ivory Coast allowed their opponents to dominate possession and go ahead, only to score another late equaliser, this time through Brighton youngster Simon Adingra in the 90th minute. Ivory Coast went on to score the winner in added time of the second half of extra time. It has taken steely resolve and two late, late shows to make it to the final.
But while luck has played its part – and did again, perhaps, in the semi-final, a game decided by Sébastien Haller’s scuffed strike which clunked into the turf only to arc perfectly over the Democratic Republic of Congo’s goalkeeper – determination, work rate and resilience have been far more important.
Faé has acknowledged some tactical issues and doesn’t appear to be some form of Guardiola-esque genius hidden among the weeds – but he has prioritised encouraging his players to show the right kind of work ethic, and it has paid dividends.
“I want players who wet their jerseys”, Faé has said, asking his players to leave the field dripping with sweat, admittedly not a tough bar to clear in the steaming Ivorian climate. “Players who take their second chance and redeem themselves. I want to see an Ivory Coast team that represents the country and the people who live in it.”
It may help that Faé is no stranger to working through adversity. Just a few years after his disappointing transfer to Reading (he started just six games after a £2.5m move in 2007), the former defensive midfielder was forced to retire at the age of just 28 due to persistent problems with phlebitis, an inflammation the veins, and made his way slowly up the youth coaching ladder back in France to reach the international level. Similarly, his squad is stacked with players who have had to put disappointment behind them, whether that’s in the form of injuries or bad transfer moves (like Pépé). Haller, whose goal took them to the final, has had to win a battle against testicular cancer in his prime playing years.
That experience at facing down adversity may explain why Faé and his team so quickly regained their discipline and self-belief after a crushing disappointment. Where many lesser and mentally weaker teams have failed, Ivory Coast have succeeded – and it’s hard to avoid the tempting parallel with Argentina’s 2022 World Cup campaign, which saw them shocked by Saudi Arabia in the group stage only for them to win the whole thing.
Of course, there are two teams in this story. Nigeria will arrive in Abidjan for Sunday’s match undefeated in the tournament and they have not lost a competitive match in almost a year. They needed penalties to overcome South Africa in their semi-final but have conceded just two goals in the entire tournament and only one from open play.
Narrative impetus may not be on their side, and the crowd most certainly won’t be, but the Super Eagles have probably been the best team of the tournament so far from. If the Ivory Coast are to complete a comeback for the ages and win the Africa Cup of Nations on their own soil for the first time, they will need to dig even deeper than they have done before.