Host nation Cote d'Ivoire bounces from despair to joyous relief at AFCON

Cote d'Ivoire has bounced from despair and embarrassment to joyous relief at the Africa Cup of Nations. And belief is daring to return.

AP , Tuesday 30 Jan 2024,
Ivory Coast
Ivory Coast s forward #20 Christian Kouame (L) and Ivory Coast s defender #17 Serge Aurier (C) celebrate after the victory at the end of the Africa Cup of Nations (CAN) 2024 round of 16 football match between Senegal and Ivory Coast at the Stade Charles Konan Banny in Yamoussoukro on January 29, 2024. AFP

The host nation was on the brink of elimination after a shock 4-0 defeat by Equatorial Guinea in their final group game. That came after a 1-0 loss to old rival Nigeria and it left the team reliant on results in other groups to somehow squeeze through to the knockout rounds.

Most didn’t believe it was possible. Disappointed Cote d'Ivoire fans vandalized commuter buses outside Alassane Ouattara Stadium, and the Ivorian Football Federation fired French coach Jean-Louis Gasset “for insufficient results.”

The federation promoted Gasset’s assistant, Emerse Faé, to interim head coach, though it looked unlikely that the former Cote d'Ivoire midfielder would be in charge for any Africa Cup games.

Then Morocco defeated Zambia 1-0 to leave Ivory Coast as the fourth best third-place finisher among the six groups, enough to snatch the last available spot for the knockout stage.

The Ivorian federation responded by trying to convince its French counterpart to ‘loan’ France women’s coach Hervé Renard for the rest of the tournament. But the talks broke down.

Faé, who must have been aware of the federation’s wish to replace him, quietly prepared the team for Monday’s clash with defending champion Senegal — the only team to win all three of its group games and arguably the toughest that Cote d'Ivoire could have faced in the last 16.

“If I said there was no pressure, I’d be lying,” Faé said.

Despite falling behind to a fourth-minute strike from Senegal’s Habib Diallo, Faé’s team kept plugging away until Franck Kessié scored a late penalty to send the match to extra time. Kessié also scored the winning penalty in the shootout as the Elephants prevailed to win 5-4 on penalties and set off joyful celebrations in Yamoussoukro and beyond.

“We wanted to show that what happened last week (against Equatorial Guinea) was an accident,” Faé said. “I asked my players to give everything, not to give up, and we did it.”

Street parties broke out in Abidjan, the country’s biggest city, where motorists were still honking their horns and people were still dancing and celebrating on the streets long after midnight.

But Faé also appealed for calm, mindful that Ivory Coast has endured a rollercoaster of emotions in the tournament so far.

“We won a game. Out of four, we lost two. So we’re even. It lifts our head out of the water a little,” Faé said. “We really came through the back door, but we want to stay, so we’ll work, without making a fuss if possible. We know Morocco are favorites, or Nigeria, it’s even better. We’ll concentrate on the quarterfinals and we’ll see what happens after.”

Victory over one of the pre-tournament favorites has restored faith for the fans, who believe the Elephants can go on to win what would be just their third title after 1992 and 2015.

“When you’re playing at home and you have the support of the public, it’s perfect, it’s marvelous, it gives you more strength to have the 12th man with you,” Faé said. “So we’re going to give everything to keep sweating for the jersey, to fight together. That way we’ll be sure to have the supporters behind us.”

Cote d'Ivoire next plays Saturday in Bouaké against Mali or Burkina Faso, who played their last 16 match on Tuesday.

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Group A W D L P
2 1 0 7
Equatorial Guinea
2 1 0 7
Cote d Ivoire
1 0 2 3
Guinea Bissau
0 0 3 0
Group B W D L P
Cape Verde
2 1 0 7
0 3 0 3
0 2 1 2
0 2 1 2
Group C W D L P
3 0 0 9
1 1 1 4
1 1 1 4
0 0 3 0
Group D W D L P
2 1 0 7
Burkina Faso
1 1 1 4
1 0 2 3
0 2 1 2
Group E W D L P
1 2 0 5
South Africa
1 1 1 4
1 1 1 4
0 2 1 2
Group F W D L P
2 1 0 7
DR Congo
0 3 0 3
0 2 1 2
0 2 1 2