With the continent already dominated by talk of Ebola, it would appear that football has been infected with it too. Five days ago the location of the match was yet to be decided, as dispute, confusion and rumours of forfeit dominated the pre-match discussion of Ivory Coast vs. Sierra Leone. Ebola has a firm grip on everything associated with the match, even if it has failed to force the match into being played at a neutral location.
Now, there is football to be played, and this match would normally be discussed with reference to the clash of two teams who – according to FIFA at least – make up two of the best teams on the continent. Both sitting in the top ten of the FIFA rankings for CAF-affiliated countries, with the hosts Ivory Coast in second place and Sierra Leone in seventh, they make up half of what is probably one of the toughest groups in the qualifying section. Due to face Cameroon and DR Congo later on, points will be at a premium in this group, with these two teams representing contrasting stories in terms of the position in which they find themselves.
Whilst last-chance saloon has been banded around references to the Ivory Coast team for the last two competitions they have competed in, for a number of the squad it pretty much boils down to AFCON 2015, with the ages of some of the senior and more prominent members of the national team making it quite unlikely that we’ll see them after this tournament. That is, if they even make it to AFCON 2015.
A new man at the helm in Herve Renard, and he has very much set out his stall for progression towards a younger, fresher national team, in an effort to build for the future and achieve the success that eluded the supposed “golden generation”. Whilst he has not completely torn apart the squad that has cemented them as one of the best teams in Africa, he has certainly ripped significant strips off, though not all of them out of choice.
The two main absentees are Didier Zokora and Kolo Toure – the main central defensive partnership over the past few seasons – who have been left out in search of new faces. Benjamin Angoua has returned to the squad as he hopes that his role in the time becomes more consistent, as well as a dip into the diaspora for talent, with Lorient’s Lamine Kone taking up his Ivorian citizenship. Eric Tie-Bi, too, has decided to utilise his Ivorian roots, as the 20-year old provides another option in the centre of midfield, fresh after his move to Asteras Tripolis. Roma youngster Tallo Gadji, currently on loan at Bastia, has also been called up to the squad, alongside the previously retired Seydou Doumbia, who unsurprisingly has made himself available for the national team again after Lamouchi’s departure.
But with Artuhr Boka and Yaya Toure now the elder statesmen in the squad at the age of 31, the injection of players has not only been fresher but also more domestically-based, with Ivorian champions Sewe Sports getting in some entrants into Renard’s squad in defender Ousmane Ouattara and midfielder Roger Assale, as well as Franck Kessie of Abidjan’s Stella Club.
Indeed, whilst Ivory Coast are paddling their board back to shore, Sierra Leone are very much riding the crest of the wave. Rising 20 places in the FIFA rankings since March, the Leone Stars have made remarkable progress in the recent past, as they confirmed their spot in the group following the defeat of Swaziland and then Seychelles in July.Part of a new breed of post-conflict African nations making magnificent strides in footballing terms, the country more known for its recent civil war are aiming to play in their first AFCON since 1996, with Northern Irishman Johnny McKinstry showing a very impressive pedigree during his first year in the job.
However, Ebola had a grip on the country’s football prior to the Ivory Coast match. Winning the first leg against the Seychelles 2-0, their opponents forfeited the second leg, as they refused entry to the Sierra Leone team on the grounds of fear of spreading disease. Whilst it was unlikely that Seychelles would have overcome the Leone Stars either way, one can see that the effect it was having on football, and fears that it will continue.
Indeed, it has made a difference to more than just location in this upcoming match. The Sierra Leone team have tried to calm the Ivory Coast’s fears of extending the epidemic by selecting a team exclusively made up of players based abroad. Whilst its not exactly clear what squad they have picked for this game beyond assurances of their squad selection policy, it is likely to be a squad made up of largely UK and Scandinavia-based players, with the majority of their non-Sierra Leonean squad playing their football in these places. Left-wing stalwart Sherriff Suma is likely to be involved, along with ex-Chelsea defender Sam Bangura, Bolton’s Momamed ‘Medo’ Kamara and the now unattached Kei Kamara, in what will undoubtedly be a squad littered confusingly with Kamaras and Banguras.
The preamble to this game means that it will be difficult for this game to be a classic. The nervousness through which the Ivory Coast have approached this game is undoubtedly likely to affect the players, whilst the reduced choice of players available to McKinstry may have a say on how his team performs. With the discussion of Les Elephants forfeiting the game now seemingly blown over, at the very least we are likely to see a game of football being played.
By Sam Crocker (@sam_crock)