AFCON Final – Nobody Choked, Penalties Are Cruel
Prior to the start of yesterday’s African Cup of Nations final, everybody spoke of a ‘dream’ clash between African giants, two teams that have underachieved for years.
Both Ivory Coast and Ghana have struggled on the big stage over the past few years. Until last night’s victory it had been 23 years since the Côte d'Ivoire lifted it, while the Black Stars' wait since 1982 will sadly continue.
‘Chokers’ are often spoken about in modern football. It’s a word that has become synonymous with perennial underachievers, teams that make it to a certain point in tournaments before getting nervous and throwing it away. In the past both the Elephants and Ghana have been guilty of it, last night however, was different.
There hasn’t been more than one goal scored in an AFCON final since 2004 (Tunisia 2-1 Morocco), and five of the last nine finals have been decided from the penalty spot. Ivory Coast v Ghana was never going to be a 4-3 thriller, it was going to be a typical major tournament final.
Finals are cagey, they’re tense. They’re a game of chess rather than Worms Armageddon. Herve Renard and Avram Grant are too tactically astute to allow their players to go gung-ho from the get-go and risk throwing away all their previous hard work. That’s not an African thing, that’s a modern football thing.
If either side had bottled it and lost by two or three goals then yeah, maybe we’d have a ‘choker’ on our hands, but that wasn’t the case. There were 76 tackles attempted in last night’s game and 53 fouls given away. It was a battle, a war on the field, even if the quality many had hoped for wasn’t to be seen.
It was the Mubarak Wakasos, the Serey Dies, Afriyie Acquahs and Yaya Toures that shine through in games like this year’s AFCON final. The players who dictate play from the middle, breaking it down and building it up, when their team needs it most. When both sides have players who are doing that well, then goals will always be hard to come by.
Defensively both sides were solid and resolute. Renard and Grant have done incredible well to make sure that two defences that have been questionable on previous occasions, were now capable of withstanding heavy pressure from their counterparts.
My point can be validated by looking at the fact that, of the 24 shots that were taken during the game, 16 of them were from outside of the box, and not a single one was from inside the six-yard area. The two teams wouldn’t allow the opposition to get close enough.
It became evident very early on that the game could go all the way, that the two teams would continue to cancel each other out and block, clear or intercept the opposition’s attacks. By the time it got to extra time I think most of us knew it was going to penalties.
As far as I’m concerned there are no chokers in a penalty shootout. Lady luck is either with you, or she isn’t. On this occasion it was Renard’s famed white shirt that proved to be the lucky one, and not Grant’s blue polo that had served him so well in the previous games.
Penalties are a lottery. After years of watching England lose via football’s cruellest method I’ve gotten to a point where they make me nervous in general, even when it’s not my team playing.
I felt like Gervinho, who turned away and couldn’t watch, as Renard’s men seemed to blow it with their first two penalties only to be handed a lifeline by the Ghanaians. It was anyone’s game and some of the penalties in sudden death were fantastic.
Then, in the most unlikeliest of circumstances, it was Boubacar Barry, a man touted as the ‘fall guy’ when he was called upon to replace the injured Sylvain Gbohouo, who saved the day.
Barry saved Brimah Razak’s penalty and then slotted home his own to hand Ivory Coast their first AFCON win in two decades, and write Renard’s name into the history books as the first man to win the tournament with two different teams.
It was Barry’s nerves of steel and not the choking of Grant’s men that ultimately led to victory. Both the Ivory Coast and Ghana deserved to be in that final, and at some point throughout the evening deserved to win it, but unfortunately there can be only one champion of Africa.
However, that certainly doesn’t mean that the other one choked. Penalties, as they say, are a lottery. The Ivorian ‘Golden Generation’ had one last chance to pick the lucky numbers and they did just that.
The Côte d'Ivoire have many stars, but I’ll end this with a comment from the match winner. After winning an AFCON final at the third attempt, Boubacar Barry said, "I'm not big in talent nor in size, but I wanted to develop and I worked for the team.”
That, my friends, can be a lesson to many of us.