Côte d’Ivoire’s willing youths hope for CAN final triumph
Hervé Renard stands on the threshold of joining a pantheon of leaders. If the 46-year-old Frenchman oversees Côte d’Ivoire’s triumph in the final at the Cup of Nations, he’ll be only the third coach in the competition’s 58-year history to have won the trophy twice.
OK, Gyamfi steered Ghana to victories in 1963, 1965 and 1982. Hassan Shehata’s heroics are of a more recent vintage. He snaffled three on the trot with Egypt in 2006, 2008 and 2010.
Ironically, the 2015 finalists Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire both fell victims to Shehata’s slick Pharaohs; the Ivorians in 2006 and Ghana in 2010.
The Ivorians also lost in 2012 to Zambia, a team guided by the man who is now on the cusp of taking them to a pinnacle that for the best part of a decade was supposedly theirs to command
All-conquering glory was predicted for Côte d’Ivoire’s “golden generation”. But the squads will be recalled as choking nearly-men. Harsh, but there are no trophies in the cabinet, merely the debris of dreams.
The spine of that golden generation, Didier Drogba, Didier Zokora and Boubacar Barry, are no more. The squad assembled by Renard has nine players under the age of 25. The likes of Wilfried Kanon, who scored his first international goal during the semi-final against Democratic Republic of Congo, watched those lost finals and withered campaigns on television.
He is no longer a distant spectator. He’s likely to be on the pitch.
“The players who have been in those finals like Kolo and Yaya Touré have told me just to be calm when I’m out there playing, they’ve said the coaches are confident I can do it so I’m working hard,” he says.
The innocence of willing youths, their injection into the squad and the very vivid recollection of those final defeats have combined to force a revolution.
“They are more open to listen,” said Renard on the eve of the final.
His impact on the squad has been impressive.
He took over the national team last autumn, steered them through the qualification games and after a shaky start in Group D, Côte d’Ivoire emerged as group winners following a 1-0 victory over Cameroon in the last game.
That eliminated one of the favourites for the tournament. Algeria – Africa’s top team and tipped for the title – were also dispatched after an enthralling collision of philosophies. Christian Gourcuff’s sinewy attacking patterns strangling Renard’s shrewd defensive lines. But the backs withstood in way not at all reminiscent of the 2010 quarter-final clash in Angola where the Ivorians frittered away their advantages.
“It was in the Cameroon game that we showed a good collective force,” recalled Renard. “That was important. Perhaps this group of players has fewer qualities than the previous Côte d’Ivoire teams which everyone talks about. But in football, aesthetic quality is obviously good but the most important thing is to win trophies and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
However it is somewhat disingenuous to preach puritanism when pearls are at your disposal. Renard possesses a certain midfield gem glittering under the name of Yaya Gnegneri Touré.
He is one of the biggest stars at English champions Manchester City and has been the African continent’s top player for the last four years.
“I am sure Yaya will play a good game in the final,” said Renard. “I am sure because, like I said before the semi-final, he will be there and as you saw in the semi he scored a fantastic goal. This isn’t by chance. It happens because when you are a fantastic player these big games are for you. These type of players are always ready for these games for then there is no pressure. The adrenalin of the competition makes them different. I am sure Yaya will play a good final.”
Even if he doesn’t, Touré’s mediocre has been generally agreed to be pretty damn good.
Renard also has the insouciant genius of Gervinho.
He’s been scintillating since returning from a two-game suspension for the quarter-final against Algeria in which he scored the final goal in the 3-1 win. There was also the strike which gave Côte d’Ivoire a 2-1 lead in the 3-1 dismissal of Democratic Republic of Congo.
Gervinho’s goal in that game was courtesy of an assist from Wilfried Bony, formerly of the parish of Swansea City and soon to be a 30-million-euro team mate of Yaya Touré. Bony, the new spearhead of the Ivorian attack, was the top scorer in the English Premier League in 2014.
With this troika of talent and a man who has already claimed the crown, the tag of favourites has been stamped on Côte d’Ivoire.
Renard, however, plays down such status.
“Look, in Ghana all the people are expecting the Black Stars to win so being considered favourites isn’t important,” he insists. “What is crucial is for us to be focused on our target. We know why we came here.”
Renard says he isn’t interested in coming second. And at the moment, he’s hampered with his motivational speeches because the last time he came first at the Cup of Nations was at the expense of a few players who’d be listening to his homilies. Not exactly the best way to get all the lads on board.
But the surge to the final with Zambia’s always on his mind.
“I lived something that was magical back then. My trip in 2012 comes back to me often. I don’t want to leave the stadium with the opposite feeling. It’s s great to lift a trophy. You mustn’t let a moment like that pass.”
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