“I am not big in size or talent. But I thought of my mother who loves me”.
The words of a great man. Today, after six Africa Cup of Nations, three World Cups and 84 caps, Ivory Coast goalkeeper Boubacar Barry retired.
I’ve got a theory about Boubacar Barry. My theory is that Boubacar Barry doesn’t exist. He is not a real person. Rather, the 35-year-old is but a projection; the embodiment of the collective trauma of those around him, who have shared the orange of the Ivory Coast shirt with him and endured oh so much pain. This collective trauma swirls and spins on the goal line, rising upwards from the ground to the sky to form a slight man, just touching 5 ft 11”, which we know to be Boubacar Barry. Bear with me.
He has been one of the few constants in every single disappointment that this Ivory Coast team has endured since 2008, roughly when the notion of the “golden generation” was born. He was a faded image back then, flickering like the hologram of Empreor Palpatine in Star Wars, back when Ivory Coast team associated playing for their country with nationalism and pride. But then the trauma began.
A fourth place finish at AFCON 2008, group stage exit at the 2010 World Cup, runner-up at AFCON 2012, quarter-final exit at AFCON 2013 and group stage exit at the 2014 World Cup followed, as their heavy billing was strapped round their necks, drowning them in underachievement. Barry was there the whole time. The penalty shootout loss to Zambia in 2012. The capitulation against Nigeria in 2013. Conceding a last minute penalty against Greece in 2014. Barry was there, the image of him becoming more defined, growing stronger from the pain of those around him.
Africa Cup of Nations 2015 was the tournament they finally got their shit together. Luke Skywalker-esque figure Herve Renard came in and rigorously drilled the ravaged, limping brains of the Les Elephants, coaching some mental fortitude into them that would eventually see them not screw up for once. This was also the tournament that Boubacar Barry was not in the team. Sylvain Gbohouo was preferred throughout the tournament, as the squad’s sudden brain improvements meant that there was not enough negative energy amongst the collective consciences of the team to form Barry. That was, until the final.
The trauma began to grow. The final. A genuine opportunity to screw up. The ultimate opportunity really. Flashbacks of Gervinho refusing to go up and take a penalty in 2012 revolved around the heads of the players. Nightmares of Giovanni Sio’s last minute penalty-conceding tackle on Giorgios Samaras ruining their sleep, as they woke up screaming in the middle of the night.
Then, Sylvain Gbohouo gets a thigh strain. Sure, the Ivorian federation will claim it happened in training overstretching for a ball, but it wasn’t that. It was the trauma. The trauma caused that thigh strain, as the consciences of the team ploughed through the Herve Renard firewall to injure Gbohouo and reinstate Barry between the sticks. Mascot of their mental destruction. Totem of group distress.
It’s worth pointing out at this stage that Boubacar Barry is not evil. Far from it – the opposite in fact. You think he wants to be this representation of years of failure? Of course not. He didn’t ask to be formed by the cooperative of suffering that is the Ivory Coast team. Besides, there’s some other factors that prove he’s not real. For one thing, there’s his name. His surname is Barry. He’s from the Ivory Coast. C’mon, you must see it. And then there’s the fact he plays for the Belgian team Lokeren. Has anyone ever seen Lokeren play? Do they really exist, or are they part of the construction of Boubacar Barry?
The final in Bata in endured. And when I say endured, I really mean endured. A dour 120 minutes of nervous football occurred, as two teams over-wary of commitment to offence spent the whole match working eachother out, as Barry stood untested for the majority of the match – occasionally craning his not-really-there neck upwards to watch Mubarak Wakaso lump a long shot miles over the bar.
And then there was the penalties, when the trauma so almost took over. Wilfried Bony misses. Junior Tallo misses, and Ivory Coast find themselves 2-0 down in the shootout. The trauma. The trauma.
Then Ghana go and miss two penalties. The trauma. The trauma. What trauma? Everything’s fine, as the diving hologram of Boubacar Barry’s body denies Afriyie Acquah’s penalty, in an apparent defiance of physics.
There is a beautiful, beautiful ending to this story. For whatever reason, the thoughts, minds and consciences of the squad not only combined to overcome this repetitive trauma, but combined in such a way that saw Barry become the hero. He steps up, scores the winning penalty in the final of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, and chaos ensued. Suddenly, they were free.
Why did this happen? The reason is unclear. Some say Ivory Coast rode the wave of Ghana’s trauma to victory. Others say that Gervinho’s connection to the deck chair he sat in during the shootout reversed the spell. We shall never know for sure.
The trauma is relieved, and – poof! – Barry retires from international football. Coincidence? I think not.
The fact is that no one will ever see him again; he has been banished to the land of imagination. Whilst Zinedine Zidane’s last act for his country was perhaps his worst, Boubacar Barry’s was most definitely his best, as he gave Ivory Coast the greatest gift of all – that elusive silveware they had been asking for for years.
He is a great, great man. One of the most humble, loyal footballers you’ll ever come across, to bow out in such a noble way is consistent with the values and style he had as a player.
He was the ugly duckling of the golden generation; the one who never featured on the Puma billboards in downtown Abidjan; the one who no kid wanted to be like, but was the one that provided their greatest sporting moment as a country.
He may not exist, but his projection will hold a special place in the hearts and minds of his teammates and those who watched him forever more.