The Ivorians’ anger turned into joy during the African Cup of Nations

Anyone walking around Abidjan will see a sea of ​​football shirts from the Ivory Coast national team. The street scene is determined by it and even when you enter a bakery or pharmacy, the staff is often wearing an orange or white jersey. But in the past two weeks you have also seen red shirts from Morocco popping up. As an expression of gratitude to the North African country, which was partly responsible for Ivory Coast surviving the group stage of the African Cup.

With his goal against Zambia, Hakim Ziyech ensured that the host country finished among the four best numbers three. And now Ivorian footballers will play against Nigeria for the title on Sunday.

A final place was unimaginable after Ivory Coast had lost its last group match by a large margin to modest Equatorial Guinea. “That was incredibly painful,” says Arnold Dakouri, journalist at radio station Adjamé FM. “The anger was everywhere. Among Ivorians, but also among the players and the football association. If you invest more than a billion euros and your national team is then defeated 4-0… That should be impossible.”

Marck Leblanc, who works for the national broadcaster NCI, continues to talk about the great frustration that was everywhere visible. “Supporters who tore their shirts, insulted the players; social media exploded with videos like that. The players were also in tears. Everyone thought it was over.”

Until help came from an unexpected source. Despite two defeats in three group matches, Ivory Coast was allowed to advance to the knockout phase. Rarely will a finalist of a major tournament have fought back from such an impossible situation. “If you’re looking for an explanation, you’re not going to find it,” says reporter Patrick Guitey Sports Ivoire. “It was a miracle that started with Ghana’s draw against Mozambique and ended with Morocco’s victory over Zambia. The rest is character, success and a helping hand from heaven.”

French national coach Jean-Louis Gasset did not wait for Morocco’s result and offered his resignation. This was accepted by the Ivorian federation chairman after a night’s sleep. Hervé Renard, the Frenchman who had won the African Cup with Ivory Coast in 2015, was approached as a replacement. However, the national coach of the French women’s national team did not receive permission from his employer for this temporary job. Perhaps a good thing, because a resurrection was initiated under Emerse Faé, Gasset’s assistant.

In the eighth finals, Ivory Coast eliminated favorite Senegal on penalties. Wilfried Bony, who was there as a player in 2015, says that the team played without fear after the miraculous qualification. “They turned it around against the best team in the tournament, where everyone thought in advance that we would lose. If everyone thinks that, I’m like: a dead person can’t die a second time, if you know what I mean. The players internalized that mentality.”

To put this in the right perspective, Bony, former striker of Vitesse and NEC, once again outlines the circumstances. “We had to play against the team that was the only team that had won all its group matches. After we won, people were like, how is this possible? What happened in the minds of the players?”

The Ivorian team after the victory over favorite Senegal in the eighth finals.
Photo Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

Atmosphere in the stadium

The victory over Senegal has been crucial for Ivory Coast’s confidence, says journalist Leblanc. “Even when they were 1-0 down, the crowd continued to support them. They also believed in this second chance. Normally Ivorian supporters are not very exuberant, they look with their arms folded. But now you saw everyone, from start to finish, pushing and cheering on the team.”

In the quarter-final against Mali, Ivory Coast escaped elimination when it reached 1-1 just before the end with ten men and then secured the victory in the last minute of extra time. Bony, analyst for NCI this tournament, saw in that match how the atmosphere in the stadium rubbed off on the Ivorian team. “Before the second half of extra time, the fans spontaneously started singing the national anthem. That was very impressive, I sat in the stands and started shaking. This felt like more than extra motivation. As a player this motivates you. Then there will be extra strength in your body.”

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Morocco players seek comfort together after the defeat against South Africa in the eighth final of the Africa Cup.

The course of this Africa Cup reminds Bony somewhat of the successful tournament of almost ten years ago. “Even then we did not do well in the first matches. But in the last group match, against Cameroon, we showed it. And in the quarter-finals we defeated Algeria, the Senegal of today.” In that match Bony played a leading role with two goals.

The current success is largely attributed to interim national coach Faé, who played more than forty international matches for Ivory Coast between 2005 and 2012. “Ivorians have taken Faé to their hearts,” says Leblanc. “Even if they don’t win the final, people don’t want the association to continue looking. They are satisfied with what he has already shown. There were no players missing from this team, it was a matter of finding the right complementarity and boosting morale. He succeeded in that.”

Joy on the streets after the victory over Senegal.
Photo Fadel Senna/AFP

Relationship with Franrkijk

Sebastian van Baalen, assistant professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, has specialized in Ivory Coast. “It is one of the most neo-colonial countries in the world, Ivory Coast still has a very strong relationship with France.” This is also reflected in Ivorian football, the youth academies rely heavily on French coaches and their expertise.

The same applies to the national team, says Van Baalen. “Other African teams have had coaches from their own countries much more often. It is a bit symbolic that there has been success since they switched to an Ivorian coach.” Especially, says the Swedish researcher, because France’s relationship with its former African colonies is increasingly under pressure, including with Ivory Coast.

During the African Cup of Nations, much was also about the legacy of the tournament, for which the Ivorian government allocated a lot of money. Van Baalen sees that some investments are valuable for the future. “The road network will make life easier for a large number of Ivorians, for example in the transport of cocoa, their main export product. The construction of bridges, as they have done in Abidjan, is also important, because the city has a major traffic jam problem.”

Journalist Guitey points out the social and political impact of the sporting course of the tournament. “A premature elimination of Ivory Coast would have been a disaster for the companies that have invested enormously. We would have felt that down to the political level.”

The success of the national team may also bring the Ivorians closer together. The country was ravaged by several civil wars at the beginning of this century. “It is like new cement that must be used to strengthen mutual relations,” says Guitey. “But it could also all be relative, because after February 11 [de dag van de finale] the Ivorians will return to everyday reality. The increase in the price of foodstuffs, electricity, housing problems. Anyway, the results will certainly soften the social circumstances somewhat.”

Former international Bony is looking forward to the final, which starts on Sunday at 9 p.m. Dutch time. He is confident that Ivory Coast can also overcome the last hurdle on Sunday. Despite the strength of Nigeria, a team that, according to him, does not put pressure on the opponent. “They defend very well, led by their captain [de Nederlandse Nigeriaan William Troost-Ekong]. And they also have very strong attackers, with Victor Osimhen, Ademola Lookman, Moses Simon and behind them Alex Iwobi.”

Bony once again points out the strengths that have been released in the Ivorian team this tournament. Forces that go deeper than technology or tactics. “I maintain: a dead person cannot die a second time.”

With the cooperation of Eva Oude Elferink