Rarely have the eventual winners of the African Cup of Nations started the competition in worse shape. The opening 45 minutes of Ivory Coast’s first group stage match against Guinea constitute some of the most embarrassing football Ivorian fans have seen in a long time. The team had crashed out of the World Cup finals in the summer when an historic place in the knock-out stages had looked like a cakewalk. Without Didier Drogba that team had gone on to limp through Afcon qualifying: never convincing, always just doing enough. After several years at the top of FIFA’s Africa rankings, the team slipped behind rivals like Algeria.
It was all a far cry from 2012 – the last time the team were in Equatorial Guinea. Then they had stormed through qualifying – six wins out of six, and 19 goals scored. The group stages followed a similar vein: three straight wins over Sudan, Burkina Faso and Angola without a goal conceded. Equatorial Guinea were brushed aside in the quarters, and then Mali in the semis – again no goals conceded. The golden generation looked set for glory in the final against Zambia.
The back story to that final was good too (though perhaps not as remarkable as for Zambia). The country was fresh out of a post-election conflict. This was the match that would reconcile Ivorians and draw a line under the political crisis, twenty years on from their last Cup of Nations victory (and the last time Alassane Ouattara had been running the country). Like then, the country had put their faith in an Ivorian coach. Francois Zahoui was woefully paid but he won over the fans.
The fairytale wasn’t to be. The big favourites flopped in the final – Drogba missed a penalty during normal time, and then with no goals scored, Zambia came through on penalties. It was the end of the team’s dominance. No longer did they seem to terrify opponents. Drogba and Zokora retired from international football, and players like Keita, Romaric and Eboue dropped out of the selection.
And so, after crashing out of the World Cup, coach Lamouchi was replaced by the man who’d steered Zambia to victory in 2012; Herve Renard. The team didn’t show much sign of change, and Renard received a tough time in the Ivorian press. Enthusiasm going into the Cup of Nations was at an all-time low. I think it would be fair to say that no-one thought this was their year. There were none of the usual football-related pop songs recorded for the event.
But the team slowly grew in stature. Kolo Toure – who has struggled since the drugs ban – became a warrior in defence. The departures left space for new blood – Bailly, Die, Bony, Aurier, Gradel and Gbohouo. And a sense of belief seemed to grow. Gone was the pressure of being favourites – far stronger was the sense of having something to prove. Penalties are always cruel, and the flip of a coin makes narratives of success or failure; the difference between a generation of heroes, or maybes.
Abidjan is in party mode. The FHB stadium was full since morning. There’s a huge sigh of relief. The tag-line of perennial underachievers hasn’t stuck forever. Something was achieved that will be forever cherished. The media story of a team of global soccer stars that could never play together, could never win anything and could never be replaced was a lie. Stars were supplanted, and after a litany of coaches, for four games at least, the Elephants learned to play together and do enough to get the wins they needed.
Western newspaper articles talk of football bringing political reconciliation to the country. That’s an analysis that is simplistic. Yes, Ivorians from all sides are celebrating one victory and one team, but no-one is naïve. This is real life – there’s a mixture of realising politics is not the be-all-and-end-all, but also that the country has not reached a state of perfection. Government officials have already made ham-fisted attempts to score political points, and the country’s state broadcaster showed the sort of amateurism that no-one is proud of in handling coverage of the great day.
And finally to Drogba. Renard had made repeated pleas to the former captain to come back in the team. There was no doubt the door was open. There has been some criticism on social media – why refuse to play for your country? But at least from his Instagram posts, he’s been totally behind the team. Was under-achievement all really about clashing egos or just bad luck? There must be an element of regret for Drogba that the only trophy that consistently eluded him was won just after his voluntary departure. But Ivorian fans have been quick to dedicate this victory not just to the remaining remnant of that generation – Yaya, Kolo, Kalou, Tiene, Copa – but also to those who took part in all those unsuccessful campaigns in recent years – Aruna Dindane, Kader Keita, Eboue, Arthur Boka, Zokora, Romaric, Baky Kone, but above all Drogba. This was the generation that got Ivory Coast to the World Cup for the first time in 2006 and every tournament since. This was the generation that allowed Ivorian fans to dream each time of possibly winning the Afcon, despite the havoc it played on their nerves. This was a victory for that entire generation.