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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Simon Adingra: Brighton winger is Ivory Coast’s new ‘jewel’

Whatever happens in the rest of Simon Adingra’s career, he will go down in the folklore of Ivory Coast football for his leading role in their Africa Cup of Nations triumph.

The Brighton & Hove Albion winger’s assists for both goals in the host country’s 2-1 win against Nigeria in Sunday’s final have cemented his place in history.

Adingra was already a popular figure in the country that has produced global stars such as Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure, especially after joining up with the squad in spite of a hamstring injury suffered on club duty with Brighton in December. The 22-year-old, in the space of two starts and three substitute appearances, has elevated his reputation to an even higher level.

Yaakub Traore, an Ivory Coast radio journalist who covered the tournament, said: “All Ivorians are very happy for Adingra. They love him more and more now.

“Before the competition, he was injured but he fought for the nation, he fought for the trophy, for the jersey of the country, so we are very, very proud of Simon. We think he is a jewel. He accepted to play for the country, even though he was injured. That is very important to us.”

Adingra gave Nottingham Forest full-back Ola Aina a torrid time in the final as Ivory Coast wiped away 40 years of hurt since the only other occasion that they hosted the tournament.

“His opponent in the final was Aina, a very strong player, but he gave two assists,” says Traore.

“We organised AFCON in 1984 but that was very bad for our national team (only eight countries competed and Ivory Coast did not qualify from their group). Now all of these players will go down in history but because of Simon’s performance in the final, he is in the heart of Ivorians.”

Adingra takes on Ola Aina (left) (Sia Kambou/AFP via Getty Images)

Adingra’s AFCON campaign is a symbol of Ivory Coast’s extraordinary recovery to win the tournament.

It looked over for both of them when they were humiliated 4-0 by Equatorial Guinea in their closing group fixture. They were already 3-0 down when Adingra came off the bench for the final seven minutes.

Those were his first — and seemingly last — minutes of the competition, his entry having been delayed by a hamstring injury sustained in Brighton’s 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace in December.

Manager Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked and replaced by Emerse Fae following the debacle against Equatorial Guinea. Other results then rescued Ivory Coast as they reached the knockout stages as one of the four highest-ranked nations to finish third in their group. That is when Adingra began to make a pivotal impact.

Brought on in the second half of the 1-1 draw with Senegal after extra time in the last 16, he was a nervous onlooker in the shootout as Ivory Coast scraped through 5-4 on penalties.

Adingra and Max-Alain Gradel (right) with the Africa Cup of Nations trophy (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Adingra came off the bench to telling effect in the 86th minute against Mali in the quarter-finals. Ivory Coast were 1-0 down and seemingly heading out of the tournament again when he equalised in the final minute of normal time as they ultimately progressed with a 2-1 victory. He then made his first start of the tournament in the semi-finals, playing for 80 minutes of the 1-0 win against the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Adingra came into his own in Sunday’s final against Nigeria at the Olympic Stadium in Abidjan. Trailing 1-0, he delivered the corner for Franck Kessie to head Ivory Coast level in the 62nd minute. That was followed by Adingra’s most telling contribution of all: a left-wing cross converted by Sebastien Haller in the 81st minute to clinch the trophy.

Adingra impressed with his overall performance in the final. He created six chances, completed five dribbles and won nine duels — in each case the most in the match.

The former Aston Villa and Ghana midfielder George Boateng, who provided studio punditry on the final for Sky Sports, said: “Adingra ran (Nigeria) ragged.”

Ghana can take some consolation from their exit at the group stage of the tournament from the part played by the Right To Dream Academy in Adingra’s development and pathway.

His footballing education began at the academy, based in Old Akrade in the east of Ghana. Young players there celebrated the role played by a former pupil after watching the final on a big screen.

Adingra joined the academy’s under-18s towards the end of 2017 after he was spotted by scouts playing in Accra.

“He’s one of the fastest integrating players we had in our environment,” says Didi Dramani, the academy’s head of football. “He was quick in understanding our style of play. He was killing everyone (with his talent).”

Adingra, reflecting on more than two years spent at the academy, said: “It was an important time there. That’s where I learnt English and everything about European football. It was very important for me.

“You’d stay there for three months, go home for one month, then come back for two months and home again. Of course, that was difficult, but football is what I love to do, so I was happy.”

Dramani is like a mentor to Adingra. He guided the winger following Adingra’s move to Nordsjaelland in January 2020 when he was working as a transitional coach for the Danish club.

Adingra broke an arm in his first training session with Nordsjaelland’s first-team squad after he was promoted from the under-19s.

Simon Adingra, Ivory Coast, Brighton

Adingra joined Brighton in June 2022 (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Dramani says: “I used to live in the club hotel with him in adjacent rooms. He had his cast on and I needed to prepare him mentally. It was one-v-ones and he was working in my group. His hand got tangled with another guy’s hand.

“I kept telling him, ‘You’re going to be a great player, this is all about adapting and knowing about how to use your hands once you are playing. Your speed will always prevail, so just keep working at it’.”

The former Chelsea and Ghana midfielder Michael Essien, now Nordsjaelland’s assistant coach, met Adingra’s mother and sister on a visit to Abidjan arranged by Dramani to showcase the academy’s work.

He was among those to congratulate the Brighton man after Sunday’s final against Nigeria.

Adingra is another example of why Brighton are widely admired for their player recruitment. They signed him from Nordsjaelland for £6million ($7.6m) in June 2022.

He was on loan last season to Union Saint-Gilloise, the Belgian side where Brighton’s owner-chairman Tony Bloom is a minority shareholder. That is the same course taken by the club with Japanese winger Kaoru Mitoma.

Adingra’s numbers at USG were better than Mitoma’s. He scored 15 goals and contributed 15 assists across 51 appearances in all competitions. Three of the assists came in nine matches in the Europa League as USG reached the quarter-finals before losing 5-2 on aggregate to Bayer Leverkusen.

Adingra will have a big part to play for Brighton in the last 16 of the Europa League and a fifth-round tie at Wolves in the FA Cup, as well as the quest for a third successive top-10 finish in the Premier League.

Mitoma dominates on the left wing — Adingra’s preferred position — but he has performed well on the right flank, with five goals and three assists in a total of 23 outings in the Premier League and the Europa League.

Brighton made a big fuss of Alex Mac Allister when the now-Liverpool midfielder returned from the World Cup last season as a champion with Argentina.

Similar plans are being worked on for Adingra when he arrives back from his exploits in his homeland on a date yet to be determined.

(Top photo: Daniel Beloumou Olomo/AFP via Getty Images)

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