Ivory Coast’s place in Africa Cup of Nations final decisively ends home misery
A home team will contest the Afcon final for the first time in a generation.
Ivory Coast ended almost two decades of home misery at the Africa Cup of Nations by becoming the first tournament hosts to reach the final since Egypt in 2006.
It has been one of the many peculiarities of the African championship that host countries have struggled for success despite having all the advantages of playing at home.
The Ivorians’ 1-0 win over the Democratic Republic of Congo in Wednesday’s semi-final has set up a decider against regional rivals Nigeria in Abidjan on Sunday and the chance to deliver on an investment in stadiums and other infrastructure estimated to be over $1-billion.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Bafana Bafana’s hoodoo against Nigeria at Afcon continues as Super Eagles dash SA dreams
The last eight hosts of the biennial tournament have all failed to win the cup, with none even reaching the final since 2006.
Ghana in 2008, Equatorial Guinea in 2015 and Cameroon two years ago at least made it to the semi-final but then exited without scoring in their last-four game.
Gabon in 2017 did not make it past the first round, putting a major dampener on the tournament.
The Cup of Nations has seen an increase in away supporters at this edition in the Ivory Coast, but the continent’s vast distances and pricy travel costs make travelling fans a rarity, in contrast to significant support that teams take with them in the European Championship.
Past editions where the host country has exited early have led to low attendance. In Tunisia in 1994, where the hosts failed to get past the group stage, military conscripts were drafted in to fill the seats, creating an unusual backdrop of spectators wearing the same brown uniform for the final.
A third of the 33 past editions of the Cup of Nations, first started in 1957, have been won by the home team, mostly riding a wave of emotive support.
Newcomers South Africa did so in 1996, cheered on by their president Nelson Mandela wearing the team’s strip as he had done one year earlier when the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup, while Tunisia’s win in 2004 was greeted by giddy street celebrations.
The Ivorians were jeered last month by their own fans when they were humiliated by tiny Equatorial Guinea in the group stage, almost going out early but eventually squeezing through as the last of the best third-placed finishers.
But they have quickly won back the confidence of their supporters and Wednesday’s win over the Congolese was raucously celebrated, leading to a three-hour traffic jam for travellers back to the city centre, some 20km south of the stadium on the outskirts of Abidjan.
Ivory Coast’s extraordinary run to the final has been born out of the belief that things could only get better following a disastrous first round, midfielder Franck Kessie said.
The host nation looked to be heading out of the tournament in the pool stages after a humiliating 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea in their final group game.
But results elsewhere saw them squeeze into the last 16 with the 16th best record of the qualifiers, though not before they sacked French coach Jean-Louis Gasset and replaced him with assistant coach Emerse Fae.
A penalty shootout victory over defending champions Senegal was followed by a 2-1 quarterfinal success against Mali before beating the DRC.
“As long as you still have a five or 10% chance you need to keep believing, because that is what makes football beautiful,” Kessie said.
“After the Morocco result (a 1-0 win over Zambia in the group stages), we knew we had qualified and that changed everything.
“It gave us the strength we needed, it boosted us. We knew we couldn’t do worse than in the first round. We need to keep going like this because you can’t go all the way to the final only to then give up.”
Fae admits their run to the decider has been a surprise even for the team based on their form at the start of the tournament.
“We are happy, we’re really moved,” Fae said. “It’s like a dream, when you go back two weeks to the defeat against Equatorial Guinea. It was hard then to imagine that we might qualify for the final of our own Cup of Nations.”
Ivory Coast have reached a fifth Cup of Nations decider. All four of their previous finals have gone to a penalty shoot-out, winning two (1992 & 2015) and losing two (2006 & 2012). Reuters/DM