I rarely talk about football on this blog (for that I have a separate site), but Ivory Coast’s defeat last night in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations merits a posting. The main city Abidjan is almost deserted this morning, the newspapers haven’t been printed and even teetotallers are waking up with a feeling that can only be described as a hangover. This is the first country that I’ve heard about in the world that has declared an official national holiday (or day of mourning) after the team LOST a cup final.
The final against underdogs Zambia finished without a goal having been scored in 90 minutes or extra time, leaving a penalty shoot-out to settle the tie. As ever with these things, the penalties leave one country celebrating wildely and another in tears, when in fact the final amounted to a draw, with both sides cancelling each other out. Perhaps it was the equivalent of David and Goliath surviving their battle intact, and deciding it by a coin toss.
For the depressing mood in Abidjan at the moment there are a number of positives to take from this competition, which are my contribution to try and lift the spirits of a dejected nation;
– Ivory Coast came just about as close to winning as it’s possible to come without actually touching the trophy. In qualifying for the tournament they won every single match. In the finals themselves, they won every match before the final (something even Zambia didn’t do), and the defence didn’t concede an entire goal in normal play in the tournament. Goalkeeper Copa Barry in particular was exceptional, making an incredible save in the first few minutes of the final. There are not many times that that a team loses a trophy after a flawless defensive tournament. Jean Jacques Gosso Gosso must be a contender for the player of the finals – a gutsy midfielder that an inspired Francois Zahoui moved to right-back. Even up front there were goals – as many as Zambia.
– Ivory Coast had the confidence to enter this tournament with a national coach – something very few African countries do. It was important to banish the stigma that countries on the continent too often attach to non-European coaches. Zahoui helped build a new team spirit that saw a noticeably improved relationship between the country’s world-class stars. For once, this time Ivorians won’t be saying that the country failed because the big stars put personal interests before team work.
– you get the sense that a good deal of Zambia’s celebratory joy is not that they won the trophy, but that they equalled an all-star Ivorian team in normal play. These were the minnows that didn’t lose, when almost everyone thought they would. That in turn is credit to the Ivorians, who had a fair degree of chances, dominated spells of the match (particularly the second half of extra time), and of course normally would have won had Drogba held his nerve for the penalty on 70 minutes.
– Zambia had an inspiring back story, but so did Ivory Coast. The big hope (perhaps unrealistic) was that victory would help reconcile the nation after last year’s post-election violence. In a way though, even in defeat the game has made a contribution. The players (from all regions of the country and main religions) were clearly unified and behaved with a degree of solidarity not seen before. While Ivorians had hoped that dancing together in the streets would help them forget past political difficulties, national depression may help achieve some of the same things. Ivorians are in this together – suffering and smiling. In the tense penalty shoot out, no-one was thinking about politics. Yes, this was a national failure, but I get the sense that the usual ‘other’ (Gbagbo, Ouattara, France, the free masons) won’t get the blame for this one – we tried, we got impossibly close, we failed, and we’re not blaming anyone but ourselves.
– despite the presence of Tiote Chieck in the squad, the Ivorian team still won the fair play trophy. Quite an achievement.
All credit of course to Zambia for a fantastic spirited performance, but Ivory Coast can take quite a few positives from this. In the past four tournaments they’ve lost two on penalty shoot outs in the final and the other two in the semis and then quarters. When the tears are dried, bring on 2013.