Togo – No respite for the wicked

The Sparrow Hawks continue to defy the odds

The Sparrow Hawks continue to defy the odds

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Togo’s arrangements for the Cup of Nations couldn’t have been more inauspicious; preparations almost ran counter-intuitive to the name of the country, for the heart and soul of the team did not want To-Go anywhere. Indeed, not only was there an overplayed will-he-go-won’t-he-go-to-Afcon stand-off between Emmanuel Adebayor and the Togolese FA over payments and security, the Tottenham striker was allied by key players Alaixys Romao and goalkeeper Kossi ‘Magic Hands’ Agassa. All three were on the team bus when it was horrifically attacked by Angolan rebels in Cabinda, one of the three killed including the press officer and principal confidant of Adebayor, Stan Ocloo. Given the lack of tact CAF showed to ban Togo for a year after their withdrawal from the 2010 tournament, you could have forgiven the Togolese players for not turning up at all.

By the 13th January – 11 days since the Ivory Coast squad had joined up, and 8 days past the 5th January deadline for European clubs to allow their players to depart – there was still a precarious air about the Togo team. Agassa, yet to accept the call-up, was still donning the jersey of famed club team Stade Reims, playing in a 2-1 defeat to Bastia in Ligue 1; Adebayor came on as subsitute for Tottenham Hotspur’s 0-0 draw against QPR on the 12th, exactly a week until the start of the Cup of Nations.

But good teams police themselves. When it comes to performing on the pitch, the fraternalism of the Togo team is one you can’t press charges against.  Their qualification for this year’s Cup of Nations saw them overcome an emerging Gabon side with the gusto and feel-good factor of a good performance as hosts of the 2012 Cup of Nations and an appearance in the London Olympics behind them.

Thereafter, they followed it up with a scintillating 1-0 win over Morocco in November. Due to the enigma of Morocco and the fact it was a friendly, it wasn’t insolence to suggest that Morocco made them look good or were experimental, but Togo played with remarkable zest as they confidently stroked the ball around the Marrakech turf. So good was their performance that they ultimately transformed the home crowd into bunch of renegades; triggering a rendition of oles’ with every pass. The cheers may have been ironic but you could sense there was an underlying heavy dosage of respect.

Yet their fantastic performance was overshadowed by an insidious payment dispute that is still simmering and seems far from the stage where one would even consider writing an epilogue. The fact that  their capricious coach Didier Six deemed it all so tiresome insofar that he left the strong-willed trio out of his initial Cup of Nations squad spoke volumes. In a move that mixed right and wrong, he was overruled by the Togolese FA and the trio were reinstated into the squad.

Naturally, given they were placed in the Group of Death and were already predicted to be the least likely team to progress, the consensus was they would be the whipping boys. Contrary to the doomsayers, though, they gave tournament favourites Ivory Coast an almighty scare in a 2-1 loss in their opening game. If their utilisation of a 5-4-1 formation against the Ivory Coast may have been considered risk-averse by the tactical chalkboard-spectacled observer, their application was anything but. Reminiscent of their performance against Morocco, Togo dominated the game with their assuredness on the ball and looked the likelier side to go on to win the game until a late Gervinho winner. Vietnam-based defender Vincent Bossou was given the task of nullifying Didier Drogba via unadulterated old-fashioned man-marking, and he confounded the former Chelsea striker, inasmuch that he was substituted from the game. Rather than praising the terrific Togolese defending, however, the belief was that we were witnessing the dotage of Drogba.

Surely, you’d think, a major tournament would finally give these tortured souls respite? Far from it. In their surprise win over Algeria, for instance, they were leading 1-0 with 87 minutes on the clock when the goal-netting was dislodged, forcing a stoppage that lasted around 10 minutes. Startlingly, there were 13 minutes of added time when the board came up, an utterly unfathomable amount. Fortunately, they weren’t playing Manchester United and they added doubled their lead early in added time.

Then, in their crucial match against Tunisia, they were confronted by a refereeing performance that Jonathan Wilson, a man who has been around the block and the bloc, referred to as the ‘worst refereeing performance I think I have ever seen’. Certainly, had Togo headed out few would have begrudged their players had they gone into international retirement. More significantly, they had to do their work on the continent-shaming, sand-spewing pitch of Mbombela Stadium. But there’s still no respite. They’ll have to play Burkina Faso on the same turf, and if they progress they’ll have to play their semi-final on it too.

It’s the insurance that Togo have on polar ends of the pitch that gives them a massive advantage over most teams, including quarter-final opponents Burkina Faso who will be bereft of the goals of Alain Traore. On one end, they have a very good keeper in Agassa, an excellent shot-stopper who may be slightly suspect aerially, but remains one of the most commanding goalkeepers in the tournament. At the other end, with the forward master-of-all-trades captain Adebayor, they have an archetypal 21st century striker that guarantees them all their defensive work will be rewarded. Indefatigably the most impressive striker in the group stages so far, Adebayor’s importance when he puts on the resplendent Sparrow Hawks shirt is unquestionable. The only striker to reach double figures in both goals and assists last season in the Enlish Premier League, the all-round ability of Adebayor, flanked by the blistering pace Floyd Ayite and the aptly named Serge Gakpe, is integral to Togo’s attacking play.

Agassa and Adebayor, along with the Herculean central-defender Dare Nibombe and the diligent Romao, form part of the experienced nucleus that has been the cornerstone of their success. The quartet were all part of the playing staff at the 2006 World Cup; Agassa’s international career dates back to 1998, while Adebayor made his Cup of Nations debut 10 years ago at the tender age of 18. In short, these men are seasoned international footballers, and it may just be that fuse of experience and quality that sees them defeat Burkina Faso and propel into the semi-final; after all, those ingredients were enough for them to see of Algeria and Tunisia as well as wound Les Elephants. They may not go on to win the tournament but if they can cause problems for the Ivory Coast, they can cause problems for any team in the tournament.

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