updated 7:33 AM MST, Nov 17, 2017

Stars and staying power carry Elephants to final

  • Published in FOOTBALL

Led by superstar Yaya Toure, Côte d’Ivoire’s golden genertion now have one final opportunity to be crowned African
champions.
I
t is said that quality will always prevail in the end, and that has certainly been
the case for Côte d’Ivoire's impressive array of stars at this year’s Africa Cup
of Nations in Equatorial Guinea. In their quarter-final against tournament
favourites Algeria – the strongest of the African sides at last summer’s World
Cup – Manchester City striker Wilfried Bony scored two headers while new
club team-mate and four-time African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure added
another from a free-kick. The reward for this display was a semi-final against
DR Congo, where Bony provided two assists in a 3-1 win. Toure fired in a magnifi


-
cent solo effort to open the scoring, with Gervinho later adding a noteworthy
curling shot to make it 2-1.
Sunday’s final will be the third in six attempts at the African showpiece for the men
in orange, and could be the last chance for Côte d’Ivoire's golden generation to
ascend the throne after two previous defeats. Goalscoring legend Didier Drogba
retired from the national team after the World Cup, while midfield powerhouse
Yaya Toure is now 31 years old.
Europe-based players add a touch of class
The Ivorians can head into the final with optimism (the second finalist has not been
determined at the time of writing – see match schedule). They have stood firm in a
tournament offering not only the highest standard of football but also an extremely
evenly matched field of competitors. Hardly a group stage game was settled by more
than one goal, while Côte d’Ivoire themselves had to muster all their experience to
gain the upper hand after falling behind in both of their first two group matches.
If the Elephants had not denied the
Indomitable Lions
of Cameroon and their
German coach Volker Finke a late equaliser in their group stage encounter, all
four teams in Group D would have been on level terms after ending all their match
-
es 1-1, prompting the drawing of lots to determine which would progress to the
knockout rounds. As it was, ‘only’ Guinea and Mali had to settle their stalemate
this way, with Mali Football Federation president Boubacar Diarra pulling the
dreaded third-place ball from the pot.
The high quality of this tournament was to be expected, with more than half the
players involved plying their trade for European clubs. But what is particularly
remarkable is that numerous individuals and teams delivered impressive perfor
-
mances despite having little or no previous experience on the international stage.
For instance, not a single player in Congo’s squad had featured at an Africa Cup
of Nations before.
Equatorial Guinea spring the biggest shock of all
Nevertheless, Equatorial Guinea have been the competition’s surprise package.
Despite only qualifying by taking the tournament reins from Morocco, the host
nation made a sensational run to the semi-final, thanks not only to the goals of
former Real Madrid player Javier Balboa and a controversial late penalty in the
quarter-final against Tunisia, but also to the exceptional reflexes of goalkeeper
Felipe Ovono. The 21-year-old plays for Deportivo Mongomo in his homeland,
which cannot even boast an organised professional league.
Ovono’s example shows that the Africa Cup of Nations is home not only to the stars
of today but is also the place where the stars of tomorrow are born.
Elio Stamm, Malabo

where gas from deposits under the Atlantic
Ocean is converted into liquefied natural gas
and methanol. Entry is denied to anyone lack
-
ing the required authorisation, but an ama
-
teur match – anybody searching for a fully
professional league in Equatorial Guinea
would be left disappointed – between two do
-
mestic sides is taking place on the pitch next
to this facility. The surface is uneven and dry
as dust, the goalposts are bent out of shape.
Goal-line technology was on hand to remove
doubt at the World Cup in Brazil, but there is
not even a net to be found here. Although
many take to the field in sandals, the young
men here all have one thing in common – they
are all decked out in brand new football shirts.
Half of the players wear the white of Real Ma
-
drid, the other half the red and blue of Barce
-
lona. They may have no referee, but these foot
-
ballers play out their own version of
El Clasico
with all the emotion and steely resolve of the
original against the backdrop of the flaming
refinery towers.
After a brief drive back along the wide
avenues of Malabo II, with its expansive
roundabouts adorned with elaborate foun
-
tains and monuments, the historical city
centre soon comes into view. As all business
and markets are closed on a Sunday, few pe
-
destrians can be found ambling around In
-
dependence Square and its cathedral, cur
-
rently under renovation. Nevertheless, the
city centre abounds with life when compared
with Malabo II and the developments on the
other, eastern side of the city.
Grand plans and small pleasures
If Malabo II was primarily built for the fu
-
ture, with traffic as calm as a quiet neigh
-
bourhood road elsewhere, the route east of
the capital to Sipipo is another matter entire
-
ly. It is possible to drive along the ten-kilo
-
metre-long motorway for minutes at a time
without seeing another car. Although this is
It is possible to drive along
the ten-kilometre-long
motorway to Sipipo for
minutes at a time without
seeing another car.
AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS
hardly a wonder considering that hardly any-
thing has yet been completed around here, it
is already evident that developers are aiming
even higher this time around. The proof is
lined up along the main road: a white sandy
beach, the luxury Sofitel hotel currently
playing host to the Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea
teams, even a huge shopping centre. But the
centrepiece of this new district is a gigantic
conference venue where Africa’s powers reg
-
ularly meet for summits. Fifty-two identical
red villas along the street – one for each Af
-
rican country – even provide accommodation
for the continent’s heads of state. It is quite
an impressive development for a place that
will soon lose its capital status to Oyala, a
planned city about to be built in the depths
of the jungle on the mainland.
But that is still a distant prospect; what
matters in Malabo right now is football. On
Sunday evening, the host nation are playing
their decisive group match against major
neighbours and rivals Gabon. As the derby is
taking place in Bata, fans in the capital’s old
town gather around television sets instead.
The ’Baby’ sports bar has installed a screen
specifically for the occasion on their front
terrace, where a hundred-strong crowd drink
Spanish beer, nervously watch the goalless
first half and listen intently to the accompa
-
nying commentary – broadcast in French be
-
cause the picture quality is better on that
channel.
On the other side of the street, Nigerian
Esther Toca runs a small kiosk where she has
also set up a television to mark the Africa Cup
of Nations. It might only be an old model placed
on empty beer crates, but it has still attracted
a lively crowd. Balanced on plastic stools out
-
side her wooden shack, the assembled fans cry
out each time a goalscoring opportunity is
missed. Toca repeatedly hurries in and out sell
-
ing chewing gum and cigarettes to the skittish
supporters. Equatorial Guinea break the dead
-
lock in the second half, ultimately winning 2-0
to cause a sensation and send Gabon out of the
competition. The result sparks delirium and
gridlock alike, both in the stands in Bata and
on the streets in the centre of Malabo. It is a
joyful noise in a city full of life.
None of this is apparent when standing on
one of the new pedestrian crossings over the
motorway in Malabo II. The impressive mod
-
ern buildings reach proudly into the night
skies, illuminated by spotlights in a range of
different colours. Six lanes of highway are
stretched out beneath them – but they are
completely empty. All that can be heard in the
distance is the faint, low hum of the last car
disappearing beyond the asphalt horizon.
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