The Final Chapter

Segun at Wembley

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (February 15th 2015)

Afcon 2015 – New African Champions

After an exciting three weeks of pulsating but technically mediocre festival of football in Equatorial Guinea, the Elephants of la Côte d’Ivoire have become the new Champions of African football. They took the coveted trophy that was relinquished, rather humiliatingly, by Nigeria. The Super Eagles had exited at the qualifying stage of the championship.

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It may have taken well over 20 years for their trophy drought to end, but when it finally did the whole of Côte d’Ivoire exploded in an orgy of celebration as the government declared a national public holiday and lavishly rewarded the gallant heroes with houses and cash gifts. It was a far cry from the disgraceful treatment Ivorian players received from former dictator Robert Guéï after a poor performance in Afcon 2000.

History

The final match against Ghanaʼs Black Stars created razor-sharp pressure for both teams. Tactically, they cancelled each other out for 120 minutes and the match had to be settled by penalty kicks – again. That match marked the third time the Elephants played in the final of the Nations Cup and did not score a goal. It also marked the third time a final involving the Ivorians had gone to penalties.

The recourse to penalty kicks against these opponents historically favoured the Ivorians. In 1992 they won the championship for the first time against Ghana after a marathon penalty shoot-out that ended 11-10. They had tasted defeat in a penalty shoot-out too when Egypt won the first of their unprecedented three consecutive titles in 2006.

Two Sunday night’s ago the elements were on the side of Côte d’Ivoire once again, as ‘lightning struck twice on the same spot’. 

Ghana were left stranded on the banks of misfortune as they threw away an early two-goal lead, due to nerves, and lost 8-9 in the end, continuing a trophy drought that has lasted 33 years. The Black Stars have lost their last three finals, twice on penalties to the Ivorians and once to Egypt in 2010

Apart from the penalty shoot-out the final match was tension-soaked but technically ordinary and boring – a true reflection of the entire championship.

The Special Generation

Winning the championship was momentous for Côte d’Ivoire as it marked the end of an era for several of their ageing generation of players, some of whom have been among the best footballers in the history of African football. Between them, Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré have won the African player of the year award 7 times. Add to that other great players playing at a high level in Europe, including Kolo Touré, Salomon Kalou, Gervinho, and so on.

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It is unfortunate that Drogba chose to retire from international football on the eve of the championship. The victory would have capped a very illustrious and unprecedented career that had only the African Cup of Nations title as the missing trophy in his rich chest.

Scant Consolation

Overall, Ghana looked the slightly better and more organised team, even though Côte d’Ivoire were unbeaten did not lose any of their matches throughout the championship. However, the Ghanaians were the more entertaining team during the tournament. Consequently, it is not surprising that the player of the tournament came from the Ghanaian team.

Christian Atsu, currently on loan from Chelsea to Everton got more opportunities under Avram Grant than he has from José Mourinho or Roberto Martínez in England. The fleet, left-footed player operated from the right side of the Ghanaian attack, scoring two of Ghana’s three goals in the quarter-finals and constantly terrorised the Ivorian defence during the final. He deserved the award. He was a bright star in a very grey constellation.

Memories

Finally, the Championship will be remembered not for memorable matches but for other reasons: how the championship ended up in a country that did not even qualify for the championship and was under suspension by CAF; how the terraces were empty during most of the matches except those involving the host country; how Morocco were suspended (and rejected the suspension) for two tournaments for refusing to host the event due to genuine health fears; how Tunisia were suspended for failing to apologise for accusing CAF of bias and complicity when they were openly ‘robbed’ by a referee who only got a slap-on-the-wrist six-month suspension, for his shameful handling of the match in question; how supporters of the host country threw decorum to the dogs and unleashed mayhem on players and supporters of an opposing team with the shameful scenes watched on television all over the world; how both CAF and FIFA Presidents condemned the Western media for ‘exaggerating’ reports of the incidents that smeared the organization of the championship because they needed to make more friends than enemies amongst national federations with their elections coming, and so on.

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At the end of Afcon 2015, the championship simply could not produce or showcase the best version of African football as well as authentic new stars to illuminate African football into the immediate future. Letʼs hope that Afcon 2017 will supply both. The country that will host that tournament will be decided by CAF in April, following the withdrawal of Libya as hosts due to security concerns.

Next Time the Fire-power

Four countries that expressed an interest met CAFʼs conditions to host the tournament. Beaten finalists Ghana last hosted in 2008. They also hosted and won the tournament twice previously. The first time was in 1963 – the first appearance of the Black Stars in the tournament. That was the first of three triumphs under the legendary African coach Charles Kumi Gyamfi. Only Egyptʼs Hassan Shehata has matched him, although Hervé Renard has made history already and has power to add.

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The next time Ghana hosted and won was in 1978, the only victory of the Black Stars not under Gyamfiʼs supervision. Fred Osam Duodu was the successful coach. The most successful team in African history, the Pharaohs have won the trophy seven times. Egyptʼs last success – qualification too – was in 2010. They hosted and won in 2006.

Their fierce rivals the Desert Foxes of Algeria have only one title to their name. They hosted and won in 1990. That leaves Gabon. They have never won the trophy. Their best achievement was reaching the quarter-final twice, in 1996 when they went out on penalties to beaten finalists Tunisia and when they co-hosted in 2012. Gabon has never hosted in their own right.

Making History

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (February 8th 2015)

Coaches

Avram Grant would become only the third coach to win with the Black Stars and the first foreigner – Charles Kumi Gyamfi won it thrice and Fred Osam Duodu in 1978. Ghanaians hope that the 33 year wait is about to end, but a former ally stands in their way. Hervé Renard hopes to make history too.

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He failed to persuade national legend Didier Drogba to reverse his international retirement and he knows that the Golden generation of Ivorian football has ultimately failed to deliver. Three times the Elephants have reached the final of the African Cup of Nations. Every time it went the distance.

In 1992 la Côte dʼIvoire achieved their only success. Fourteen years later Hassan Shehata led the Pharaohs to the first of three triumphs. And in 2012 Renard was the tactician who broke Ivorian hearts leading Zambia to their only Cup of Nations triumph. On each occasion the final ended in 0-0 draw – hopefully the cycle will be broken tonight.

The Next Generation

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Renard stands on the brink of history, but is quick to acknowledge another. “He won the Cup of Nations with Cameroon”, Renard said of Claude le Roy. “He deserves total credit [for Renardʼs success with Zambia], because without him I wouldnʼt set one foot in Africa. He did everything for me. Itʼs even him who spoke with Mr Kalusha Bwalya [President of the Zambian FA] about me. I think Kalusha didnʼt know me very well. I think itʼs a good record. I think I came on the right place at the right moment”.

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Bwaylya gave Renard a chance twice. “… in 2008 I was reflecting on that when Zambia was at the Africa Cup I thought, what is the best requisite for a coach to work in Africa – of course Africaʼs always been in the export of players, but an importer of coaches, so I thought to myself, we needed a young coach to come and also who was ambitious, who was not going to be too comfortable in Africa to stay here 20 years”, Bwalya told us.

Bwalya had a plan and Renard was part of it. “I thought that it was important that they stay here three, four, five years and target the Africa Cup, target the World Cup and then they can move on, so when I got Hervé Renard after I assumed office in 2008 I brought him to start to prepare the team for 2010 – Hervé Renard”, Bwalya said. “In the three years he spent a lot of time in our country; he was very, very comfortable in our country”.

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Delayed Reaction Crystal Balls

Bwalya picked the right man even if it came true in Renardʼs return. “The work ethic, he was always working”, Bwalya said. “He was not afraid to lose a game which most of the people when they come away, they look more worried about their salary and everything done than the performance of the team”.

Renard repaid Bwalyaʼs trust. The African legend was the first to take a chance on Renard. He was vindicated in 2012 when the Chipolopolo fulfilled Bwalyaʼs dreams – he fell just short as a player in 1994.

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Meanwhile, two years ago, while covering the last edition in South Africa I asked Renard who would win the African Cup of Nations. “I think Ivory Coast and Ghana will reach the final”, he said. “They are the strongest teams”. Perhaps it was a delayed reaction answer that took two years to mature.

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A Disaster Waiting to Happen

By Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (February 2nd 2015)

Dramas

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The quarter-final matches of the ongoing 2015 AFCON lived up to expectations in terms of drama. Ghana’s match against Guinea was a stroll in the park. Following that performance the Black Stars now look almost set to break the over three decades jinx of not winning Africa’s most coveted football championship. Their next match is against hosts Equatorial Guinea, but the way that they reached the semi-finals will not have been lost on Avram Grant or his side and hopefully CAF too.

The other matches were brutal physical contests that rendered impotent any talk of serious football tactics. The most refreshing aspect of the matches is the avalanche of goals that came tumbling down from the plateau of earlier mediocre performances made worse by poor finishing in front of goal. In the past few days the floodgates have opened and the drizzle of goals has started to pour down.

Segun at Wembley

Integrity

The match with the least number of goals, between hosts Equatorial Guinea and Tunisia now threatens the integrity of the competition. Indeed, in the opinion of my friend and co-journalist, Satish Sekar, the main feature writer of Empower-Sports magazine, CAF’s reaction to the referee of that very controversial match Rajindraparsad Seechurn will impact, one way or the other, on the rest of the championship and even beyond.

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For a team that was still under suspension for fielding an ineligible player in an earlier competition, it was highly suspicious why CAF swallowed its pride, disregarded the consequences of treating its own punitive measure as a minor inconvenience and awarded the hosting rights to Equatorial Guinea – of all the countries that showed interest to host it.

It was a step too far for Satish. He normally attends the African Cup of Nations and had planned to go this time until Morocco withdrew and the tournament was moved to Equatorial Guinea. Remember that Morocco had withdrawn from hosting the competition only a few weeks before due to the Ebola virus scare, and CAF had sought for an alternative volunteer host country.

Satish believed that awarding the tournament to that nation was simply wrong – it rewarded an ineligible country for cheating. To maintain integrity in football, especially in these times when corruption and more has reared its ugly head in the beautiful game, CAF had to maintain its ban on Equatorial Guinea.

Lack of Pedigree

That’s how this small Central African country, without any deep or rich pedigree in African football, became last-minute participants in the championship, replacing Morocco. And it should be remembered that Equatorial Guinea has only ever qualified as hosts – never on merit on the football field. In 2012 they had earned their spot as legitimate hosts. This time they were not eligible, because they had fielded an ineligible player and been rightly punished for that transgression.

For some observers CAF was setting itself up for a possible disaster by ignoring their own rules. Last Sunday night that fear became real. The rest of the world outside Africa is watching to see what happens next. I did not watch the match. I was high above the Sahara desert heading to Europe at the time. By the following morning the reports of that ignoble match were everywhere.

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Fiasco

The highlight of the reports was that the Tunisian players had chased the Mauritian referee after the match and were going to assault him but for the intervention of security personnel. Also, George Leekens, the Belgian coach of Tunisia, affectionately known as the Carthage Eagles, was so outraged that, at the press conference after the match, he described the officiating of the match as the worst in the 45 years of his experience in football.

I quickly rang up my friend, Satish Sekar, who had been following the matches with a microscopic lens. He would be neutral and give me a professional perspective. Satish was scathing in his remarks, to say the least. A football purist he dislikes poor officiating and the failure to use technology to correct bad or even mistaken decisions with a passion.

Highway Robbery

This is the worst case of highway robbery – in football – I have ever seen”, he said. “Dick Turpin (the notorious 18th Century highway robber) was hanged for less! What happened was simply unbelievable. CAF made a mistake. Why did they take the match to Equatorial Guinea? In the first place they were ineligible because they were under a ban by the same CAF for fielding an ineligible player”.

Me at FA Cup Final

Satish believed that a disaster would follow that decision. Incredibly the hosts had complained previously that CAF did not want them to progress. But what of Seechurn?

The referee was either completely appalling and incompetent, or, the match is a set up”, Satish said. “It is hard to believe anyone could be that bad. It wasnʼt just one bad, or even terrible – there were several. The Tunisians were robbed. It is even more painful for them because they had a good chance to win the cup and had done enough to win in normal time”.

The phantom penalty was a terrible decision made even more sinister in appearance by the timing. The hosts were on the way out when a blatant dive resulted not in a deserved yellow card, but a penalty. Adding insult to injury Seechurn refused to enforce the laws of the game in extra time as well and tolerated outrageous time-wasting at every opportunity once the hosts had taken the lead.

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The decent thing for CAF to do is order that the match be replayed”, Satish said, “but I know that will never happen. But they need to do something about a referee with such a dodgy record. Information is now readily available about the man’s record in previous matches too. CAF and the championship’s integrity are at stake. That referee should be sent back home in disgrace”.

A catalogue of ʻErrorsʼ

Satish went on to provide a vivid description of what happened at the tail end of a match that the Tunisians had wrapped up in normal time, and how they were robbed with some disgraceful and dubious officiating. If indeed, the situation is as bad as Satish, Leekens and many others here in Europe describe, why has CAF not done anything publicly to sanction the referee?

Have the Tunisians become the scapegoats, the sacrificial lamb needed to make the competition respectful and justify CAF’s decision to bring the competition there? Only if Equatorial Guinea continue to win will spectators fill the stands that have so far been full of empty seats at all venues except where they are playing.

The referee’s penalty kick decision was an undeserved gift. Even television replays have shown that there was no offence committed deserving of a penalty kick. What is clear, however, is that the end of the road is near for Equatorial Guinea. Their hopes of winning it all should end when they meet Ghana next.

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Defining Moment

It will be a great injustice if a team that has played some of the poorest football in the championship, has no pedigree, which got to this stage with the help of a dodgy referee, gets to the final and possibly wins it. Ghana are favourites to get to the finals where they are likely to meet old foes Côte d’Ivoire.

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However, a hard match against DR Congo stands between Hervé Renardʼs team and the final. A Ghana versus Côte d’Ivoire would truly be a terrific final, a befitting climax to a dramatic feast of African football – a repeat of the 1992 final, during which the Elephants beat the Black Stars on penalties. It may also restore some badly needed integrity to this edition of the African Cup of Nations.

Ivory Coastʼs ʻGolden Generationʼ Fail Again

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 24th 2014)

Dramatic Ending

Fernando Santosʼ Greece snatched a last gasp win over Ivory Coast to advance to the knock out stage for the first time in their history. Baselʼs Giovanni-Guy Sioʼs clumsy challenge caught the back of Georgios Samarasʼ boot, sending the Celtic striker to the deck. Samaras picked himself to handle the pressure admirably.

Despite Ivory Coastʼs goal-keeper Boubacar Barry going the right way to his left, Samarasʼ penalty was well-placed. At 2-1 the Ivory Coast had to attack. Kolo Touréʼs weak shot went wide ending Ivorian dreams again. For the third World Cup in a row the ʻgolden generationʼ had failed to get out of their group in the World Cup.

Sabri Lamouchi and his team cannot complain. They knew what they needed to do to progress – just avoid defeat. Moments before conceding the penalty the Elephants outnumbered the Greeks four to two, but Yaya Touréʼs shot was easily taken by Panagiotis Glykos, who had replaced Orestis Karnezis after Udineseʼs goalkeeper was forced off with a back injury after 25 minutes.

The Ivorians only needed to avoid defeat, which forced the Greeks to play against type and rely on a not unlikely favour from the Colombians against Japan. Defender José Holebas hit the crossbar from just outside the area with Barry well beaten. Just before half-time a dreadful error by Newscatle Unitedʼs Cheik Tioté gifted possession to Samaras. He put substitute Andreas Samaris through and Olympiacosʼ midfielder through to put Greece ahead.

Chastened

The Elephants knew that they had to score, yet the Greeks came closes. Their most-capped player Giorgos Karagounis struck a thunderous 35 shot against the cross-bar with Barry beaten again. Moments earlier Salomon Kalou jinked between Dimitris Salpingidis and Vasilis Torosidis and shot just over. With 20 minutes remaining Lazaros Christodoulopoulos took a free-kick that ruffled the top of net from 30 yards out.

That caused the Ivorians to spring to life. A flowing move through the centre was spread to the left. Gervinho pulled it back for Swanseaʼs Wilfried Bony to score to Glykosʼ right. At that point the Ivorians were heading to the last 16. The 36 year-old Didier Drogba was taken off after 78 minutes. He received thunderous applause, as did Karagounis, who was substituted a minute earlier.

Sadly for the ʻgolden generationʼ and probably Lamouchi – this is his first managerial job – it was the Elephants rather than Greeks that came to this match bearing gifts. Meanwhile, history will be made as either Greece or their opponents Costa Rica will reach the quarter-finals for the first time.

 

 

 

Elephants Stun Japan

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 14th 2014)

Elephants Never Forget

Sabri Lamouchi may have failed to lead the Ivory Coast to glory in the African Cup of Nations, but he saw the Elephants come from behind to beat Japan 2-1 in the last of four World Cup matches today. Japan took an early lead thanks to a neat corner to Yūto Nagatomo who squared it to Keisuke Honda who blasted it into the top corner to Boubacar Barryʼs right after 16 minutes.

Lamouchi took the courageous decision to change an ageing side that had been built around their iconic leader on the pitch Didier Drogba. But Drogbaʼs impact cannot be forgotten. He inspires those around him just by his presence. Lamouchi decided to give the captaincy to Yaya Touré, whose marauding runs forward never quite developed into testing the Japanese defence and keeper. But once Drogba came on things changed.

The Drogba Effect

Ivory Coast pressed forward, but clear chances when they came were not taken in the first half. Gervinho and Wilfried Bony could not find the net in the first half, but Didier Drogba was waiting his chance on the bench. Within five minutes of his entry to the fray the Elephants had turned the match around.

Serey Die made way for Drogba after 62 minutes. 3 minutes later, Serge Aurier got the first of his two assists an inviting cross from the right wing for Bony to head in the equaliser. Two minutes later Aurier repeated the dose, crossing for Gervinho to glance his header in to give the Elephants the lead.

Ivory Coast held on to win. The Elephants have never got out of their group in the World Cup – theyʼve had some very hard groups each time. Lamouchi must fancy his chances to achieve something Sven-Göran Eriksson couldnʼt.