Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire can ensure 2015 Africa Cup of Nations is remembered for the right reasons
The players of Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana will shoulder a continent-sized burden when they meet in Bata on Sunday to contest this year’s Africa Cup of Nations final. After what governing body CAF euphemistically call ‘failures to maintain calm’ – and what everybody else calls violent disturbances – took place in both a quarter- and semi-final match, it has been unfairly left to the remaining two teams to salvage an apparently discredited tournament.
Cote d’Ivoire 57/100
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The trouble started when hosts and surprise package Equatorial Guinea were awarded a ‘controversial’ (another euphemism; read farcical) last-gasp penalty in their match with Tunisia. Ex-Real Madrid Castilla man Javier Balboa subsequently tucked away the spot kick, and then delivered another outrageous, top-corner extra-time set piece to secure a 2-1 win and his nation’s (un)safe passage.
Next, the Tunisians, furious at the Mauritian referee’s ‘bias’, thought it wise to pursue the man at fault down the tunnel – literally punching, kicking, and screaming as they went. Among the consequences were a surprising six-month ban for the referee; a paltry $50,000 fine for the Tunisians; and, most worryingly, more than a dozen reported attacks on sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia.
Things flared up again last night as Equatorial Guinea took on Ghana, though this time mid-, not post-, match. Finding their team 2-0 down at the half, some Equatoguinean supporters took out their frustrations on the away section and team; so many missiles were thrown that police felt compelled to don their riot shields and escort Andre Ayew and co. to their dressing room. A third Ghana goal was scored after the break, and Ghana’s fans were driven from their stand and forced to congregate on the pitch behind the nets. Stones and bottles reigned down.
The referee rightly stopped the match at around 80 minutes, and in doing so denied CAF the chance to repeat their well-worn ‘cut television coverage, stick fingers in collective ears, scream ‘La la la la la’’ routine. But this was only the start: to come was an inexplicably low-flying police chopper, an impromptu stadium evacuation, and an unacceptable number of hospital admittances. Like the hosts’ quarter-final, it was only the serious threat to safety that prevented a categorisation of tragicomedy.
These incidents apart, the tournament has been a joy. Semi-finalists Democratic Republic of Congo will continue to fly the flag for African domestic football in their third-place playoff, anchored by the management of Congolese Florent Ibenge and a playing staff drawn partly from TP Mazembe and Vita Club (albeit helped out by South London’s finest, Yannick Bolasie). Guinea overcame the Ebola epidemic not only to qualify, but also beat Mali and Cameroon to the quarters. Even the hosts have proved occasionally likeable: their on-field antics have annoyed and the team will in all probability face a lengthy ban, but it was briefly heartening to see an Equatoguinean team made up of young and exciting Equatoguinean players (still got love for you, Felipe Ovono) approach the miraculous on home turf. It will be a great shame if the actual football is forgotten.
A final fought between two African heavyweights, the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire and the Black Stars of Ghana, should help to make sure that this is not the case. The African football hipster will still surely mourn the early exit of Platini’s Cabo Verde, but for most it is the perfect ending: the dying embers of an Ivorian ‘golden generation’, rejuvenated by he of the plain white shirt, Herve Renard, versus a bright Ghanaian side, all of whom are under 30 years old, managed by the ageless-but-not-in-a-good-way Avram Grant.
Cote d’Ivoire have probably been the tournament’s best team. Functional if underwhelming in the group stages, they have come to life in the knockout format, first dispatching favourites Algeria before a more-or-less routine semi-final victory over DRC.
Renard, 2012 Cup of Nations winner with Zambia, has been central to their success: a lack of firepower was never going to be a major problem for a team containing Wilfried Bony, Yaya Toure, Gervinho, and the in-form Max Gradel, but the defence now looks so much more organised, so much more a coherent unit, in the coach’s 3-5-2 system. But the question, really, is whether he has instilled the less perceptible but just as important ‘no-choke’ mentality: Don’t flop, Siaka Tiene, Kolo Toure, et al.
Ghana’s progress has mirrored their opponents’, a sloppy start followed by a sudden improvement. Beaten by Senegal in their opening match, they had to scrap to escape a ‘Group of Death’ that also had in it Algeria and South Africa. Two nervy one-goal and two convincing three-goal wins later, Grant’s team are gearing up for the final.
In that run, Christian Atsu has been especially influential, blitzing past full-backs for fun and scoring what will undoubtedly be named Goal of the Tournament in the quarter-final win over Guinea. If Cote d’Ivoire’s Tiene and Serge Aurier can negotiate the threat of Atsu and captain Ayew, the Black Stars’ chances will be much reduced. Ghana must also sweat on the fitness of Asamoah Gyan; out for the Senegal loss with a mild bout of Malaria and later injured in a Harald Schumacher-like collision with Guinea’s goalkeeper, he is doubtful for Sunday.
Let us merely hope, in what is perhaps the world’s first sincere use of this phrase, that whatever happens, football – absolutely glorious Africa Cup of Nations football – is the winner.
KIERAN DODDS is a masters student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others. Follow Kieran on Twitter.