From chaos to champions? Don’t rule it out in Ivory Coast’s madcap Afcon

Photograph: Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images

The fact that Ivory Coast hired a septuagenarian French coach – Jean-Louis Gasset – with no experience in African football before the Afcon, only to sack him after their miserable performance in the group stages and replace him with former international player but novice manager Emerse Faé for their last-16 game against Senegal speaks to the cocktail of incompetence and chaos that is Ivorian football.

And not even Monday’s pulsating, national morale-boosting penalty-shootout win over Senegal, which sent the streets of Yamoussoukro into a frenzy of jubilation into the early hours of Tuesday, can mask this fact. Managing the Elephants was an unexpected 40th birthday gift for Faé, given to him by FIF, the Ivorian football federation, on 24 January, leaving him with just five days of international management experience before a high-pressure knockout game against the defending Afcon champions.

Related: The journeyman French coach is fast becoming an endangered species in Africa | Jonathan Wilson

“It was quite challenging [taking up this job]. It was very difficult,” Faé admits. “Morocco [by beating Zambia in their final game] gave us the opportunity to remain in this tournament.

“After our terrible [4-0] defeat to Equatorial Guinea, we had to regain our senses and tap into the reserves of the players … I was under great pressure. Senegal were the clear favourites. Before we started the match I knew we could face any situation. We tried to move [the game] in the way we planned and create opportunities for ourselves.”

The lack of fear with which the Ivorians took on the defending champions, despite going behind in the fourth minute, was in sharp contrast to their tepid performance in the group stages against Equatorial Guinea, which infuriated fans, leading to the destruction of property in the immediate environs of Abidjan’s Ebimpé Stadium.

How things have turned around. Going forward Faé is very clear of what he expects from his team. “I want players who wet their jerseys [with sweat], 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.”

The governance of Ivorian football – or the lack of it, as many in the west African country would say – under Idriss Diallo, the president of FIF, has been put under intense scrutiny and criticism by many.

Before Faé was surprisingly given the job Diallo, in a rather bizarre move, had approached the France Football Federation to see if he could hire Hervé Renard – the man that led the country to their second Afcon title in 2015 and now in charge of France’s women’s national team – to take charge of the Elephants for the remainder of the tournament.

Renard has been in Ivory Coast for the tournament. The FFF, not unsurprisingly, rejected Diallo’s request.

As Mamadou Gaye, a football analyst for SuperSport, the pan-African pay-TV channel, asked: “How do you sack a coach during the tournament and expect the federation of another country to give you the coach that they employ on loan to you, for a major tournament? It is something that is beyond my comprehension and that of many people in the country.”

The public anger against Diallo, before the round of 16, has led to the head of FIF keeping a rather low public profile during the tournament. Diallo’s house and the FIF headquarters, on Treichville Avenue in Abidjan, were protected by armed guards during the group stages.

A major criticism against Diallo during this Afcon has been the alleged neglect of his primary job – ensuring that the national team is properly prepared – spending more time, instead, on his duties as a vice-president of the tournament’s local organising committee.

Many claim that his neglect of his FIF duties also led to a deeply embarrassing situation of the country’s women’s national team being forced to pull out of the qualifiers for the Paris 2024 Olympics due to lack of funds, even when Ivory Coast has supposedly spent over $1bn in preparing to host this Cup of Nations. Diallo has said that a lack of government funding was to blame.

Yeo Martial, the Ivorian coach who led the country to their maiden Afcon title in 1992, has also been publicly critical of FIF, complaining on national TV that that there has been no acknowledgement of his place in the country’s football history, in the events and activities planned by the organising committee for the Afcon.

A former Ivorian senior member of the CAF administration, with longstanding ties to the country’s football community and to high-ranking people in government, who spoke under anonymity, said he is not surprised by the mess that Ivorian football currently finds itself in.

“Many who are in football administration are not acting in the country’s primary interests,” he says. “They seem to be more concerned about how to enjoy the trappings of power than do the hard work of football development. But if we look at things critically this problem of leadership is not exclusive to Ivorian football. It is a problem that we can see across the entire African continent.”

But with the hosts pulling a quarter-final place out of the sharp jaws of humiliation and disgrace, the big question is whether what has been hitherto seen as a laughable pipe dream for Ivory Coast – a third Afcon title – is now realistic to contemplate again.

Should that happen, it would be completely in tune with the drama that has been an inextricable part of arguably the most exciting, unpredictable and open competition in this tournament’s storied history.


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