Guinea’s Elephants defiant ahead of Mali match
Samuel Eto’o hobbled like an old man near a corner post after a goal for Chelsea against Tottenham in March 2014, it was hailed as a cheeky riposte to his manager José Mourinho who had questioned whether the Cameroonian really was only 32 years old.
The gesture was hailed as one of the most inventive goal celebrations of recent times.
Guinea’s skipper Kamil Zayatte tells the story of how, with the Ebola epidemic devastating his country last November, he and his players were asked to wash their hands with sanitizers before going onto the pitch for their Group E qualifying game against Togo in Lomé.
Zayatte smiles as he recalls how he beckoned his players to wash their hands with sanitizer as part of the celebration following Sylla Idrissa’s first goal in their 4-1 win.
The tale underlines the vein of defiance coursing through the unfancied Guinea team. The country’s purple patch on the football field came when most of the squad was still at school. Between 2004 and 2008 there were three quarter-final appearances in a row.
Since then there have been promising performances but nothing to rival the teams inspired by the nonchalant style of skipper Pascal Feindouno.
The National Elephants – as they are nicknamed – have a daunting task on Wednesday night when they play Mali in their final game in Group D in Mongomo.
The clash contains all the heat and spice of a west African derby. Not only are regional bragging rights the issue but also a place in the last eight at the 2015 CAN.
It’s a position few would have predicted for Guinea. Drawn in a group containing four-time winners Cameroon, the perennial heavyweights Côte d’Ivoire and an experienced Mali squad, the Guineans were anointed makeweights.
But they drew with Côte d’Ivoire in the opening game on 20 January and came from behind to finish 1-1 with Cameroon on 24 January.
Coach Michel Dussuyer has been at the helm for four years, except for a brief falling out with the football association two years ago.
“We were in a tough group for qualifying for this tournament,” said the 51-year-old. “We had Ghana, Togo and Uganda in the group and we had to fight hard to qualify to even get here. While we’ve been here in Equatorial Guinea we’ve had success and we’re growing in confidence and we know we are going to upgrade our level to take on the big teams. We didn’t have a complex when we got here and we’re certainly not going to have one now.”
Senegal coach Alain Giresse sagely suggested that the CAN was a competition where favourites struggled to show their primacy. Hosts Equatorial Guinea and Congo have advanced to quarter-finals rather than the predicted candidates of Burkina Faso and Gabon.
Zambia are no longer the force of yore and their elimination from Group B was hardly a surprise. Cape Verde had been expected to continue the form that took them to the last eight in South Africa in 2013 but they too fell by the wayside from Group B.
Senegal and South Africa were anointed the Group C makeweights but going into that pool’s final game on 27 January, they both had a fighting chance of upsetting Algeria and Ghana respectively.
“All the pundits and analysts said when we came here that Mali, Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon are the favourites,” Dussuyer added. “But I believe in my players and we have confidence. We’ve played all our games with spirit and it will be the same in the last game. I don’t know what will happen but we will fight until the end.”
Guinea’s putative mission impossible has created a gritty belief among the players. Ibrahima Traoré, scorer of the goal against Cameroon, spoke of the extra training sessions he undergoes while at his Bundesliga club Borussia Munchengladbach.
Zayatte said he relishes his role as captain. “I try to do my best for everyone. I’m like the big brother now and I try to keep everyone in line,” said the 29-year-old Sheffield Wednesday defender. “I have a big responsibility on and off the pitch.”
Zayatte entered the national set up in 2006 and was part of the team that got to the quarter-finals in Ghana in 2008 and the side that slumped out after the group stages in 2012.
He says the team ethic has changed over the years. Before it was a collection of strangers, now there is camaraderie. “When I started there was a new player coming in all the time,” said Zayatte. “Things were constantly unsettled. But now we have been together for a while and we know each other. We’re more like a family and the coach is our father.”
The clash against Mali will be a titanic struggle in Mongomo. But Zayatte says his team is ready. “We will try to fight for each other and I believe this team can go far.”
Perhaps on Wednesday night, the Guineans will be rubbing their hands with glee.
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