Ivory Coast's despair strongest of varied AFCON emotions

Posted by Firdose Moonda

"It was a dream that came true," said beaming Burkina Faso manager Paul Put.

"It was heartbreaking," said Ivory Coast player Souleyman Bamba.

The full spectrum of emotions seen in any sport were on display during the second quarterfinal match day of the African Nations Cup Sunday as the favourites bowed out and an unexpected team surged into the semis.

Almost every member of the Ivory Coast squad was in tears when they lost 2-1 to a youthful Nigerian team to end many of their hopes of ever being continental champions. Didier Drogba was the man in the spotlight, especially as he was expected to have played in his last ANC. He all but confirmed it with two chilling words. “It’s over."

-- Video: Moonda on Nigeria's upset
-- Video: Nigeria 2, Ivory Coast 1
-- Video: Burkina Faso 1, Togo 0

The 34-year-old still has life in his legs. He signed a deal with Turkish giants Galatasaray and is expected to play a part in the Champions League campaign. But whether he will turn out for his national team again is the big question. The only answer Drogba had was an uncertain one. “We now look ahead to the World Cup, with or without me.”

For Ivory Coast to pretend to move on so swiftly from another major disappointment is nothing but them putting on brave faces. Make no mistake that they are hurting. Again, they have failed. Sabri Lamouchi, in his first coaching assignment, accepted all responsibility. He said the side lacked “simplicity in our build-up.”

If that can be twisted to mean that they were missing a killer punch, then it would seem an acceptable admission. Their lacklustre start to the quarterfinal was one illustration, and even though Ivory Coast qualified for the knockouts before their final group stage match, they didn’t give their best.

The group of death turned out to be easier to negotiate than it looked. Algeria were non-entities and Tunisia fought hard but did not produce anything. All its teams are out of the competition.

Togo, with an overreliance on Emmanuel Adebayor, did not emerge from of their quarterfinal either. They were outgunned by a Burkina Faso team that genuinely seemed to want it more. Although Togo reached the knockouts for the first time, they lacked fluency, which showed in the quarterfinal.

Adebayor was well-marked and his teammates were unable to present him with any chances and mostly seemed unsure to create any themselves. Unlike Drogba, Adebayor may be back to compete in the tournament, but his erratic relationship with Togo's football federation means that even if he isn’t, the loss is unlikely to have cut as deeply as it has for Drogba.

With regret for one lies opportunity for another and Nigeria’s path to the trophy appears to have cleared substantially. Although not mentioned as one of the contenders for the title beforehand, Nigeria, who play Mali Wednesday, have a strong chance and manager Stephen Keshi believes they have what it takes to go all the way. He said his side is starting to show its true “character,” an important trait at the end of a competition.

Keshi prepared the team well for the Ivory Coast, spent four days studying video and ways to keep Drogba and Yaya Toure out of the game. For most of the match, they were able to do that. Keshi’s Super Eagles have progressed from their tournament opener when they drew with Burkina Faso and shown the discipline he demands.

The realisation is dawning they could go all the way and pressure on Keshi has only increased. The same cannot be said of Put, who has probably achieved a satisfactory result with the Burkinabe, who face Ghana in Wednesday's semifinals.

“What can you say? We are very happy. We didn’t expect this result. Everybody in Burkina Faso was already satisfied with the quarters but I told the players we are here ... and we have the opportunity to play the semifinal.”

The team have reached these heights before when they played in the last four of the tournament they hosted in 1998. Then, they came up against DR Congo and played what was probably the match of the competition, a 4-4 draw followed by a penalty shootout. Having beaten Tunisia 8-7 in a spot-kick contest in the quarterfinals, Burkina Faso would have fancied themselves to do it again but they lost 4-1.

This time they will play the much-fancied Ghana and know that Asamoah Gyan will not take any penalties. Mubarak Wakaso, who has scored two in the tournament so far, is likely to if it comes down to that but Burkina Faso won’t want to let it.

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