AFCON semi-finalists show that you can get far by being hard to beat

Mali, for the second year running, have shown that you can get far by being hard to beat.

Mali, for the second year running, have shown that you can get far by being hard to beat.

Winning is overrated, some football purists say. Certainly, when World Soccer gathered a cohort of experts a few years ago to name their greatest teams ever, three of the teams in the top five – Hungary 1953, Holland 1974, and Brazil 1982 - had won zilch. If Sandals For Goalposts compiled a similar list with an African focus, Ivory Coast probably wouldn’t be in the top 5 but they would surely be knocking in the teens of the list; and they’d undoubtedly be Africa’s greatest losers. Let’s get one thing straight: Ivory Coast are a good team. You don’t reach two finals and lose them both on spot-kicks if you’re a poor team. A great team they’re not, but the ‘England of Africa’ they are not. An accusation levelled at this talented team is that they’re over-confident. But when you’ve had a conveyor belt of ignominious failures, over-confidence becomes nothing more than punditry jargon.

Another accusation thrown at the Ivory Coast team is that they’re a collection of overpaid stars who aren’t necessarily a team. But that’s unnerving ignorance when one deconstructs the roots of the team. At least half of the squad’s footballing foetuses can be traced back to ASEC Mimosas from the mid-1990s. In Puma’s excellent Afcon videos, Emmanuel Eboue reveals that he calls up the day before squads are announced to see if he’s included because he wants to see his team-mates and ‘be more happy’. Indeed, in an era when the raison d’etre is getting sucked out of international football, Les Elephants are a notoriously tight-knit outfit; the type of men who you can imagine sharing, say, 5 plates of rice between them and not arguing over who is eating the bigger portions.

No other African team has the attacking oomph to thrash a European team. Even if Didier Drogba does retire, they have Lacina Traore, Wilfried Bony, Arouna Kone and Seydou Doumbia as his heirs to his lengthy hegemony of the single-striker throne.

If the Ivory Coast have a propensity to thrash teams, then it’s their nanoseconds of narcolepsy in defence which saw them defenestrated by Nigeria out of Africa’s centrepiece. As the adage goes: goals win you games, defences win you tournaments.

Boubacar Barry’s error from a Emmanuel Emenike free-kick should have been a routine save, but it would be misleading to diagnose the goalkeeper as the problem when the Ivorians were so flawed structurally. The warning signs were apparent during the opening game against Togo, a game which they narrowly won 2-1 but deserved to lose. Kolo Toure looked a shadow of his former self, Sol Bamba was exposed by pace, Siaka Tiene has barely played for PSG this season and it showed, whilst Emmanuel Eboue was adventurous but hardly guarantees defensive dignity. A defence that lacked genuine pace at its core needed to have tighter protection, but the more expansive game under Sabri Lamouchi had always made the Ivory Coast susceptible to pace.

With Lamouchi opting to draft Didier Zokora, Ivory Coast’s best and most experienced defensive midfielder, to centre-back to replace the catastrophic Kolo Toure, the Ivory Coast were even more exposed than usual. The reconstruction of a defence during the heat of the tournament was risky business. Whilst they were barely tested against the tippy-tappy of Tunisia and they fielded a second string against Algeria, Nigeria, with their pace and power throughout the side, were bound to cause them problems; bound to be more lethal than Togo were.

The defences-win-you-tournaments maxim couldn’t resonate louder for the Ivory Coast, particularly given all the semi-finalists in this year’s Cup of Nations, like in last year’s, have shown that zeros against your name, or rigid structures, is the name of the game.

Burkina Faso’s centre-halves Paul Koulibaly and Bakary Kone have been very good, as has their backline as a whole. Helped by the diligent robustness of Djakaridja Kone and Charles Kabore in front of them, the Stallions haven’t conceded a goal in 367 minutes. Nearly as impressive as Burkina Faso, Ghana haven’t conceded a goal in 292 minutes, the only two goals conceded both coming in the 2-2 draw against DR Congo when the Boye-Vorsah partnership was disrupted due to injury to the latter, and the inexperienced Jerry Akaminko, who gave away a penalty which Dieumerci Mbokani converted, to come in. But since the reconciliation of Boye and the fit-again Vorsah for the second group game against Mali, the Black Stars’ defence has not been breached.

Mali, meanwhile, have left little room in and around their penalty area by sitting deep, the pair of Momo Sissoko and Samba Sow unsettling the tempo of the opposition through their heavy, tactical fouling. Moreover, sides have found it difficult to come to terms with their physicality – 10 of their starting XI come in at 6’0 or over, only the energetic left-back Adama Tamboura, who’s 5’7″, deviates from the norm. Nigeria have conceded 3 goals, but only 1 has been from open play and another was a penalty against Zambia that was particularly harsh. Their defence, which includes young centre-back partnership of Kenneth Omeruo and Godfrey Oboabona, has rarely been troubled. Fegur Ogude has carried the water wonderfully whilst John Obi Mikel has executed the play-breaking duties perfectly, restricting Yaya Toure to near anonymity in the quarter-final.

Under the stewardship of Francois Zahoui, the Ivory Coast possessed a defence which had a closed-all-hours policy, a method which nearly won them the Cup of Nations last year; conceding no goals for the duration of the tournament. Had they continued with that stratagem they would undoubtedly still be in the competition. But he was consequently sacked after the myopia which is rife in African football associations reared its ugly head again. Ultimately, this Ivory Coast generation will be remembered as great losers. Ghana, for instance, may lack the grandeur but their eternal shut-the-door mantra in defence is the chief reason why they’re now in their fourth semi-final in a row. Uninspiring it and boring it may be to neutrals, but zeros against your name is the name of the game.

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