Ivory Coast’s Afcon win shows there’s no blueprint for tournament success
IIt was the biggest defeat ever suffered by an Africa Cup of Nations tournament host. Ivory Coast completely fell apart in the second half of their final group match against Equatorial Guinea. If they had retained a sense of perspective they would have realized that even a one or two goal defeat was probably enough to get them through, but their heads were gone and Emilio Nsue kept scoring the same goal. It finished 4-0, the biggest defeat for any major tournament host nation since Brazil’s 7-1 capitulation to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semi-final, and made progress unlikely.
The past three weeks were the story of what followed. There were some quiet riots, with cars and shops burned down. Ivory Coast’s 70-year-old French coach Jean-Louis Gasset was fired. On his 40th birthday, former Reading midfielder Emerse Faé was appointed, having never been a head coach before. He had no idea if he would have games to take over. But Ghana conceded twice to Mozambique in injury time, Zambia lost to Morocco and Ivory Coast reached the last sixteen not so much through the back door, but through the tree and through the bathroom window.
While the country joked about their team of vengeance, those who have returned from the dead, Faé oversaw a series of unlikely comebacks, culminating in Sunday’s 2-1 win over Nigeria, when the winner was scored by Sébastien Haller, testicular cancer was diagnosed eighteen months ago. How much story does a tournament need? I was in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon for Zambia’s emotionally-drenched victory in 2012 (see On This Day) and nothing will ever be bigger than that, but this, in its absurdity, came close as the hosts went from shame to disbelief to euphoria used to go.
But there’s a broader point here, which is that if tournaments can be won in such chaos – let’s face it, are more fun to be won in such chaos – then what good is preparation? As England head to Germany this summer to end 58 years of pain, they will do so under the leadership of a technocratic manager in Gareth Southgate who believes in diligent research above all.
According to the Ivorian principle, they would be better off throwing out Southgate after the groups, handing the job to a former player with no experience in the front line (Darren Bent has just turned 40), the formation and four or five players to change, choose a self-player. a mocking but somehow self-fulfilling nickname, and hoping that some strange alchemy will take them home.
But that’s the nature of football: one of the beauties of the low-scoring nature is that chance plays a role – which so regularly confused Pep Guardiola in the Champions League; For a long time, the league’s great underlying story has been its constant struggle with fate, its attempt to bring order to the chaos that is football’s natural state. In league seasons, over 38 matches, the best team usually wins; Throughout the seven matches of a tournament, with four knockout rounds and the possibility of penalties, luck, confidence, form and momentum play a major role.
That’s why the pre-tournament claims that “anything less than the semi-finals” would be a failure are so nonsensical. A team can play brilliantly in the group and unluckily lose to a top side in the last 16 in a match where they played well but were undone by a goalkeeper in unbeatable form/poor refereeing/an erratic bounce/another good side playing well played and have a much better tournament than a team that fought its way to the semi-finals. England had a much better World Cup in 1998, when they went out in the last 16, than in 2006, when they went out in the quarter-finals.
But that does not mean that countries should not prepare. England introduced the Elite Player Performance Plan in 2011 and the England DNA Blueprint three years later. Southgate was a key figure in this as Under-21 coach at the time. It was a clear success: England’s performance in youth football has improved dramatically and Southgate now has a fleet of technically gifted young attacking players to call on.
The result is that England, after years of talking themselves out because of the abilities of one or two good players, history and a self-diagnosed innate fighting spirit, now usually enter tournaments as one of the true six favourites. It is likely that only France will go to the European Championship with a better team. The better your team, the better you prepare, the better your chances.
But you still need a spark somewhere, something that gives a team a sense of its own destiny. And sometimes, as the example of Ivory Coast proves, football is so illogical that the spark can end in a 4-0 defeat. Sometimes crazy things just happen.
This is an extract from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, the Guardian US’s weekly look at the game in Europe and beyond. Subscribe for free here. Do you have a question for Jonathan? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and he will provide the best answer in a future edition