Two completely opposite characters cemented their places as cult figures in African football on Sunday night. It was a great reminder of why football always will be the beautiful game. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
What makes sporting tournaments great? Is it solely the quality of the sport that’s played and the talent of individual players, or are we equally enchanted by unlikely heroes and the villains that nearly oust them?
If this year’s Africa Cup of Nations is anything to go by, then the allure of unlikely scripts can be far more enchanting than watching Yaya Toure hammering home a penalty or seeing Wilfried Bony fox defenders.
On Sunday night, when Ivory Coast beat Ghana 9-8 on penalties, two men – Boubacar Barry and Herve Renard – cemented cult status for themselves in African football. The one is an anti-hero and the other has become a prince of African football.
The two could not be more different. The one is an impulsive goofball, who resorts to eating grass as a means of celebration. The other is a far more serious figure, who has an aura about him even when forced to wear a pink bib over his trademark white shirt.
For Renard, who has now gone 17 matches unbeaten whilst wearing his trademark white shirt, the trophy served to underscore his credentials. When he won the tournament with Zambia in 2012, it was nothing short of a poetic miracle. Zambia were rank outsiders for the Cup, but under his guidance, the team clinched the final in Gabon. It was a remarkable and memorable story because Gabon was the same country where a plane that was carrying the team to Senegal for a 1994 World Cup qualification match crashed and killed all 30 passengers, including 18 players, and the final was being played just a few miles away from the disaster site. As far as fairytales go, it was not going to get better than this.
In that match, Zambia toppled African giants Ivory Coast, also through penalties, to seal what will forever remain as one of the competition’s most memorable wins. Three years later, after a failed stint in French football, Renard returned and clinched yet another memorable victory, still wearing his white shirt and still creating history. Ivory Coasts’ first title in 23 years earned Renard the honour of being the first coach ever to win the Africa Cup of Nations with two different countries. It is a quite incredible feat, considering he has done it once with a team who nobody thought could do it, and a second time with a team with a penchant for failure.
“We dedicate this win to the Ivorian people. Football has this magic element in that it unites all the ethnic groups – all the people who perhaps don’t think the same way. Ivory Coast is more than delighted today and that’s the most important thing,” the coach said after the win.
But their delight did not come easily. They had just one win in their group stage and during the qualifiers, they had lost 3-4 to the Democratic Republic of Congo on home soil. As this year’s tournament progressed, though, Ivory Coast kept on getting better and the golden generation seemed to have finally found some sparkle. Yaya Toure was immense, Gervinho was shining, Wilfried Bony was on point and newly promoted keeper Sylvain Gbohouo looked solid. Gbohouo was relatively new to the gig, promoted ahead of ahead of Boubacar Barry during the qualifying stages at the hands of Renard. But then came the final and Gbohouo picked up an injury. The goofball Barry had to step in. At his age, Barry had hardly expired, but he was part of the generation that had choked time and time again. He was often the one on which Ivory Coast’s persistent failure was blamed and during the opening half, he had already managed to fumble a cross. His effort between the posts on Sunday was never entirely below par, but it was, at times, nerve-wracking. It’s no surprise, then, that by the time penalties came around, Gervinho glued himself to a plastic chair and turned his back towards where the kicks were taken. He would not be taking part in the shootout since the last time he did, he kicked his effort into orbit.
The script was, as you know by now, dramatic, and Barry was about to become the unlikeliest of heroes of the whole competition. Barry saved Ghana’s third penalty and the shootout progressed to sudden death. When the time came for goalkeepers to take the shots, Barry blocked his opposite number’s kick and then put away his, after he had to be peeled off the turf due to what seemed like a cramp or injury of sort.
For the skipper, Yaya Toure, it was a big relief after failing in two finals.
“Today is fantastic. It was a great stress because of the penalties. In 2012, against the coach [Hervé Renard, then of Zambia], my brother [Kolo] missed, but today the penalties were something I hate. I must congratulate Copa [Barry]. He showed us the true example of solidarity.
“The manager has been brilliant for us,” said Touré. “Without the manager, we would have won nothing. He knows very well football in Africa. He made things difficult for me. He told me if I didn’t run he’d kick me out. He’s fantastic.”
On Sunday night, both the coach and his previously demoted keeper were fantastic. As far as football scripts go, nobody could have asked for a better end result. Two men are now cult heroes; the one will always be the antihero and the other has become a prince of African football. While there is much to criticise about this year’s tournament –and the host nation – it’s these little pockets of jubilation that will keep us coming back for more, and serve as a reminder of why football truly is the beautiful game. DM
Photo: Ivory Coast’s captain Yaya Toure (C) celebrates with team mates after winning the African Nations Cup final soccer match against Ghana in Bata February 8, 2015. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh