Long-suffering Boubacar Barry an apt hero of Ivory Coast’s triumph

Amidst the afterglow of Ivory Coast’s dramatic penalty shootout triumph last Sunday night, Herve Renard and the Toure brothers didn’t forget to namecheck the important people in their spirited, gossamer-thin success. The win was dedicated to Didier Drogba, Didier Zokora, and Aruna Dindane, the rest of the cast of the golden generation who had either fallen by the wayside or plunged into senescence, along with Dindane’s late daughter Reisa (who died during the 2006 tournament) and Ibrahim Toure, the Toures’ late brother, who passed away during the last World Cup.

Breathless and relieved, there was praise for the penalty shootout heroics of Boubacar Barry from captain Yaya Toure. And then Renard, while rhapsodising about Barry, highlighted a man who won’t receive much credit but is palpably responsible for masterminding it all, even if partly. “Just before Barry hits the penalty, I said: ‘A goalkeeper who worked with Jean-Marc Guillou is able to pull it off’.”

Certainly, Barry’s execution from the penalty spot was remarkable, but what is even more remarkable is what Jean-Marc Guillou, a man who gave Arsene Wenger’s his entrance into coaching, himself pulled off in Ivory Coast in the early 1990s. Formulating the vision of the ASEC Mimosas academy that went on to produce Barry, Zokora, Emmanuel Eboue, Siaka Tiene, the Toure brothers, Arthur Boka, and Gervinho, to name a few, JMG’s academy showed what was possible to produce in a football-mad African country with good infrastructure and coaching.

The notable method of JMG’s blueprint was his idiosyncrasy that his teams play with no goalkeeper. When Barry arrived at the ASEC he would play in midfield before JMG would deploy him to be the last line of defence. Did JMG’s assertion that all players, including the goalkeeper, had to be comfortable with the ball at their feet help Barry when take that penalty with such sang-froid?  It is impossible to say because of the myriad factors that come into play, but Barry, for all his weaknesses, is equally comfortable with both feet. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say his ball work in his teens made that penalty kick being converted more of a certainty.

It is on that basis that Barry’s sealing spot-kick was so poignant. For the pedantic, it was finally tangible success for the work of JMG. For the romantics, it was closure for the golden generation in its purest form, for Barry is a bona-fide member of the golden generation – not ability wise, sure, but certainly career path wise.

Unlike Didier Drogba, who was born in Abidjan but left as a young child, was horned in France, and late-bloomed to force his way into the Ivory Coast squad, Barry is a member of the golden generation who has been pictured rolling since the beginning. He was part of the 1999 CAF Super Cup final when, besieged by player exits after their African Champions League triumph in 1998, ASEC Mimosas fielded a team that included the inexperienced trio of Kolo Toure, Siaka Tiene and Barry in goal to shock a mocking Esperance de Tunis, in what would signal the inauguration of the golden generation.

Barry would check in at the now-defunct Beveren, the routine stop-off point for ASEC graduates in the early 2000s. The motives of JMG have ultimately been questioned as players were paid the Belgium minimum wage and the club identity was significantly eroded (at one point 16 of the 21 players in the Beveren squad were Ivorian); the business-like, revolving-door manner players were sold alienating fans further and turning Beveren into a football club masquerading as a cattle market.

For all the cries of foul play, the camaraderie the players shared on their first European experience was by all accounts a unifying one, bonding them on and off the pitch. Many would go on to forge careers in the major five European leagues, winning league titles and cups, playing in Champions League finals and winning it. Except from Barry, of course. The goalkeeper has remained in Belgium, and though he has accrued a Belgian Goalkeeper of the Year award and two cups in his time at Lokeren, even connoisseurs of chocolate don’t dream of living in Belgium for the long-haul.

With a name such as Barry, he should be selling fruit at a market stall or spewing us-against-them, xenophobic opinions in your local pub. Instead, Bazza is a pious man who, when his physiognomy is factored in, has a touch of a domesticated, retiring Tupac. A devout Muslim, Barry fasted for the entirety of AFCON 2012 stating that it “keeps me purified, strong and spiritually focused during games.” When the team go for their pre-match walks, he is always in his serene white, holed Islamic skull-cap, and his new-found status as a national treasure didn’t make him abandon the head attire when being honoured at the president’s palace on Monday.

The majority of Ivorian players are active on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, but there’s no social media indulgence from the 35-year-old. Barry is simply an average guy who happens to be good enough at football to earn a living from it, nothing more. He’s not interested in the phenomena of post-victory dressing room selfies or pre-game #teamspirit Instagram posts. He is the epitome of unfashionability: he just wants to do his best for his mum.

That anonymity and humility is probably a good thing. Because big football nations always have a mob seeking the fall guy and Barry has often been perceived as the weak link. The belief that he is a major reason for the Ivory Coast golden generation not having sampled triumph before Sunday night is largely misplaced, though. Yes, he can be erratic, his handling is unreliable, and he is just 5’11”. His size is an issue – had he been a few inches taller he would have probably saved more Ghanaian penalties.

That he is an unheralded name, and that Ivory Coast have had no reliable alternative for much of the last half decade, has only exacerbated the criticism. Truth be told, though luck has not been with them at times, the Ivory Coast’s AFCON frustration has, with the likes of Emmanuel Eboue (despite being awful defensively, simply playing for big club like Arsenal and being funny was enough to save him from scathing criticism) and Sol Bamba undisputed regulars at one time or another, been more bad defending, and sometimes poor game management, than the ills of Barry.

What is incontrovertible is that Barry is a man has witnessed and personally experienced a lot of footballing trauma. He has been there all along in the past 13 years of AFCON hurt, on the bench at AFCON 2002 and in the AFCON 2006 penalty defeat to Egypt. He would only be hoisted to No. 1 after the retirement of the legendary Jean-Jacques Tizie in 2007. A year later, he would finally line up in goal at AFCON 2008. Ivory Coast would encounter an Egypt team in their years of efflorescence and be on the end of a 4-1 semi-final trashing.

What’s often forgotten, though, is it was Barry’s exit that played a part in Ivory Coast’s collapse. Barry would have to come off with an injury in the 37th minute with the score at 1-1, and the sub-par Stephan Loboue, who is so obscure that he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page to this day, would be his replacement. The Elephants would ship in three goals, with the substitute goalkeeper showing his mediocrity in the process and the decline of Kolo Toure witnessed before our very own eyes.

He was part of the Cabinda capitulation in AFCON 2010, where a Abdul Kader Keita thunderbolt seemed to have given the Ivorians the quarter-final win, only for Algeria to hit back with an equaliser deep in injury time and then score a winner early in extra time. He conceded no goals at AFCON 2012 only to be rewarded with a loss to Zambia on penalties.

The match that he is castigated most for, though, came in the AFCON 2013 quarter final clash with Nigeria. He misjudged the path of Emmanuel Emenike’s free-kick, with what should have been a straightforward save turning into a goal, and then a Sunday Mba shot bounced of Bamba’s backside and looped over him. He would weep from the pitch to the dressing room to the team bus. This time he was the unquestionable fall guy. Never mind that he played no significant role in 2006 or 2008 or 2010: Barry, the supposed weakest link, had suddenly been the major problem all along, and that revisionism has stuck with him since.

Some redemption would come in the 2014 World Cup qualifying play-off versus Senegal. Taking a 3-1 lead into the away leg, Ivory Coast conceded late and were in extreme danger of losing to the away goal, but it was a dogged Barry who would be the saviour in their lacklustre performance, finishing as the man of the match and shedding tears of joy as the World Cup ticket was booked.

Still, the so-near-yet-so-far emotional scarring would surface at the World Cup 2014 at its very worst. When Ivory Coast needed just a draw in their final round game against Greece to progress to the knockout stages for the first time, Barry would be so pumped that he would famously eat some grass in relief when Bony would score a late equaliser. Yet come full time, with Greece scoring the winner through Samaras’ injury time penalty, Barry was deflated and visibly devastated on the Estadio Castelao turf.

That should have been enough. Didier Drogba and Didier Zokora had, understandably, decided enough was enough, descending into retirement with dignity. The latter felt he could not give any more emotionally. Aged 34 at the time, Barry’s retirement would have been understandable too after all he had been through. Clearly a glutton for the pain of suffering, Barry continued without two of his pals.

When the transition period wasn’t going so smoothly, Renard made it clear the door was still open for both Drogba and Zokora, but the veterans were never tempted to make a U-turn. Barry still remained, even when Sylvain Gbohouo has been preferred over him since November’s qualifiers. “If you’re called to represent the nation you need to come without hesitation,” Barry would say in the aftermath of Sunday’s victory, “even to sit on the bench.”

It was the culmination of all the tournament trauma, as well as Renard seeking to reconstruct the defence for the long term after the defeats to Cameroon and DR Congo in qualifying, that forced Barry to drop to the bench. He is a better all-round keeper than Gbohouo, but the time had come to give someone else a chance – even if it was an inferior candidate.

The eagle-eyed Gbohouo has performed admirably, so, naturally, when Barry was reinstated following Gbohouo’s injury before the final the consensus was that the Lokeren keeper would win it for Ghana rather Ivory Coast .It was All-Eyez-On-Me on the Tupac doppelganger, then, but in his eyes only God can judge him. It is God who dictates his path; it was God who had decided even before kick-off that Zambia would win the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations. And it is a miracle of Godly proportions that he, of all people, would save a penalty and then win it through sudden death.

His penalty shootout antics, from the trash-talking to the timewasting, was unsavoury to some. But this was a quiet man who had decided that the time had come to win ugly; hurt can turn nice guys into noxious ones. It was now or never, and he was willing to do anything to rise from exclusion into eminence. When Barry committed his errors against Nigeria in 2013, former Tottenham striker Mido jokingly tweeted that Barry had already won three Cup of Nations with Egypt – harshly and inaccurately, of course. Two years later, he has won one of his own.

Would he rinse all those years of hurt and ridicule if he knew there would be a moment like this; simultaneously curtain-closing the original batch of the golden generation and becoming a national treasure? You’d wager he wouldn’t. After all, the ecstasy of triumph can be found in the bitterness of heartache.

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