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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Ivory Coast’s redemption arc: AFCON hosts go from despair to delirium

Senegal’s supporters banged their drums with such ferocious intensity that it felt like they were rallying troops for war — maybe that was their intention.

Scattered around the Charles Konan Banny Stadium in Yamoussoukro, in between the thousands of people who swayed their hips and danced for hours, were some supporters wearing grisly lion masks. When Habibou Diallo scored from Sadio Mane’s cross after three minutes, they let off a bright red flare. Ivory Coast boss Emerse Fae, in his first game as a senior head coach, must have wondered if he had accidentally stumbled upon the gates of Mordor.

Ivory Coast had a week to recover from their brutal 4-0 defeat to Equatorial Guinea ahead of Monday’s last-16 tie against the Africa Cup of Nations holders, but they still looked shellshocked. Two hours later, they had somehow won the battle.

Franck Kessie’s 86th-minute penalty sent the game into extra time and then a penalty shootout. The central midfielder also converted the decisive spot-kick that eliminated Senegal after 120 minutes of action, too. Against the odds, after finishing third in Group A and scraping into the knockout stages, the host nation have progressed to the quarter-finals, where they will face Mali or Burkina Faso.

The road that connects Abidjan to Yamoussoukro is long and straight. You cut through tropical woodland and small villages for 180 miles. Women walk along the side of the motorway with large bundles of wood strapped to their head, others hack at thick vegetation while men sell nuts and drinks. There were bushfires at regular intervals but nobody panicked.

When The Athletic approached Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast’s capital, there were not many signs that a significant fixture was about to take place. It is less developed than Abidjan, the country’s largest city and economic capital, and the population is smaller. In Abidjan, there are flags draped over telephone wires and daubed onto walls from lots of different nations.

A Senegal supporter at the Stade Charles Konan Banny (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP)

One man painted in green, white and orange, and wearing a wig, greets you in Yamoussoukro and there is a life-sized model of the tournament’s mascot Akwaba, an elephant. There were more people trying to sell flags, hats and other trinkets than actual supporters. Pockets of Senegal fans roamed around but the locals did not seem too interested.

The return journey was completely different. Leaving the city involved navigating hordes of people celebrating in the streets. Young couples whizzed up and down the roads on motorcycles, raising the Ivorian flag aloft. One man hung out the window of a car blaring a trumpet. Roadside bars that had been were empty earlier were packed with people basking in the glory of this unexpected victory. Even a military squad ran past singing.

In the stadium at full-time, Ivory Coast fans pumped their fists and performed a routine to the song Coup du marteau by Tam Sir, the tournament’s unofficial theme song. A security guard stood transfixed, smiling and unable to move his gaze from his idols.

The Ivorian squad went on a lap of honour while Senegal’s 20-year-old midfielder Lamine Camara was inconsolable. He was being comforted by members of their coaching staff and someone threw a towel over his head so the cameras could not catch him crying. Camara could barely move, so Cheikhou Kouyate scooped him up in his arms to carry him into the dressing room.

Senegal did not see this coming. Aliou Cisse’s side were the only team with a 100 per cent win record in the group stage and they were the second-highest goalscorers with eight. However, they could not break the curse of the defending champions. The last holders to reach the quarter-finals of AFCON were Egypt in 2010.

Franck Kessie

Ivory Coast’s Franck Kessie (left) scored from the spot twice (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

Fae did not come up with a tactical master plan. Ivory Coast had 57 per cent possession, which amounted to four shots on target. Cisse said Senegal “lacked smoothness” during build-up but that their opponents were “not dangerous” on the ball.

The smartest move Fae has made since replacing Jean-Louis Gasset is starting Odilon Kossounou. Why Gasset did not trust the centre-back is a mystery. The 23-year-old, who plays for Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen, was solid defensively and excellent at progressing the ball with his passing or dribbling.

Fae made the bold call to drop Kessie, the former Barcelona and AC Milan midfielder, for Hull City’s Jean Michael Seri. The 32-year-old showed composure and his experience shone through. Seri completed 63 out of 66 attempted passes (95.5 per cent).

Kessie might have been annoyed at losing his starting role and Seko Fofana looked frustrated when he was substituted in the second half, yet they will have renewed belief in Fae’s methods because every decision paid off.

The former Reading and Nice defender could have been tempted into throwing Simon Adingra and Sebastien Haller into the line-up following their recovery from injury. He waited until the right moment to bring them on and they combined effectively in the build-up to Nicolas Pepe winning a penalty.

Emerse Fae replaced Jean-Louis Gasset after the group stage (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

Fae was applauded by local journalists when he sat down for his press conference. He has united his squad while dealing with uncertainty around his role because the Ivorian Football Federation approached Herve Renard to coach them.

“The last five days have been tough,” Fae said. “We had to find a little confidence, so the first two days were dedicated to that. Then we started focusing on Senegal and constructing a game plan.

“I was scared to concede a goal early but you have to credit the players for coming back. Before the game, I told them I wanted to rediscover ‘My Elephants’ and they put a man’s performance in. Yes, we beat Senegal, but we are not going to get a big head.”

A few days ago, Ivory Coast were a laughing stock. They suffered their biggest defeat at home and became the first host to lose two group stage games at AFCON since it happened to them in 1984.

None of that matters anymore. Four of Africa’s top-ranked sides are out but Ivory Coast are still standing.

(Top photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

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