As we move into the last week of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations, there are four teams that live to fight another day in the semi-finals. Ivory Coast, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the teams with a one in four chance of lifting the trophy come Sunday evening in Bata. I, like many others out there, can’t say I was expecting Equatorial Guinea to make it so far in this competition. Let’s tell the truth, these guys don’t exactly have the best record in international football, don’t really boast the most widely recognised talent, and they were not even supposed to be at this tournament in the first place. But to be fair, this team rode their luck when they needed to. They just went about their business and took advantage of their home status, and some of the decisions that went their way, even though we thought some of them were just ridiculous. The truth is, they did what they had to do. The president made sure there are supporters inside the stadium and this gave the players that 12th man feeling against any team they play. On Saturday they played a quarter-final match against Tunisia, and although we felt that the penalty they were awarded was a bit soft, they still had to convert it. Javier Balboa must have felt the weight of the nation as he was about to take that spot-kick. Having tucked that away with relative ease, he then slotted in one of the best free-kicks I’ve seen at this year’s Nations’ Cup. For me, this team has done really well and deserves to be applauded for having gone so far.
Another team that came into this tournament through the eye of the needle is the DRC. A team that struggled to qualify, and got in as the best third-placed team shouldn’t, by any logical premise be within touching distance of the trophy as they are right now. But as I always say, football, especially tournament football is not played on paper, and records mean nothing. To add to their strange entry into the competition, they played three draws in their group B matches against Tunisia, Cape Verde and Zambia. The three points proved enough to take them to the knockout phase, which shows that in a tournament you don’t necessarily need to play pretty football, as long as you’re effective. They might not have been free scoring upfront, but importantly, they were not leaking at the back. Sometimes your defence will get you through situations you never thought possible. Experienced coaches will tell you that strikers win you games, defenders win you trophies. They haven’t won the trophy yet, by they have as good a chance as the other three. In their last eight game against Congo, they showed some heart to come back from 2-0 down to win 4-2. Now I don’t know about you, but the only comeback more impressive I’ve seen in AFCON is when Mali came back from the dead with eleven minutes left against Angola in the opener of the 2010 edition, from 4-0 down to draw 4-4.
The Black Stars of Ghana did not have the same expectation of winning the competition as they normally have in the weeks leading up to it. As a matter of fact, they were seen as just one of the teams in the rebuilding phase. I have really been impressed with how this team has approached things here. It has been a very professional, business-like performance by them. When they lost that first game against Senegal, it looked like they were headed for doom. But then captain Asamoah Gyan went from his hospital bed straight into the headlines when he grabbed a last kick winner against Algeria, to set things up against South Africa. The one thing all teams can learn from Ghana is playing with heart. Just the look at the face of Andre Ayew after they equalised against Bafana Bafana. You could tell you he means business, and he inspired his team to a second goal to send the 1996 winners packing. Now think that I’m a football purist, and often insist that a tournament is won by either experience or heart. If you have both of them it’s a bonus. Ghana though, has the heart, and I’m willing to put my head on the bock that should they make it to the final, they will win this AFCON.
We have said it time and again that Ivory Coast have failed to deliver on their promise for so many years, and were probably the most under-pressure team coming into this tournament. I thought this was going to be one of those where we are disappointed when they were still in the group stages. For me they did not play that intimidating football that we expected. They should, by their high standards, have already qualified for the quarter-finals before heading into their last group game. For a team of their pedigree they should not have to be so tense wondering if they’ll make it or not. But I’ll tell you what, they seem to be peaking at the right time. Having welcomed back Gervinho from suspension in their game against Algeria, it seemed to inject some life into them, and with that fantastic brace Wilfried Bony scored, the Manchester City fans must be licking their lips at the prospect of that combination he has forged with Yaya Toure. No wonder they are two of the most expensive African players at the moment.
All in all I think these four teams really did well to get here, and as the Elephants’ coach Herve Renard rightly put it before that quarter-final game against the number one ranked team on the continent, “…in football you normally get what you deserve…”. This of course goes for both positive and negative results, and I could not agree more. Let the one who deserves it most lift the trophy on Sunday.