Cote d’Ivoire’s AFCON triumph: Resilience, character, leadership

Cote d’Ivoire’s AFCON triumph: Resilience, character, leadership

Cote d'Ivoire's Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) triumph will go down as one of the most amazing stories of resilience, courage and self-belief in football that few pundits could have predicted.

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Yet their 2-1 victory over Nigeria last Sunday was a fitting finale to a truly amazing tournament, perhaps, the best AFCON witnessed in the last four decades.

In many ways it was also a perfect setting for the Ivorians to celebrate a deserved triumph as Sebastien Haller delivered the killer blow that delivered the third African title for the hosts at the packed-to-the-rafters Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan.

What a perfect gift from the Elephants to their loyal supporters who rallied the team to a memorable comeback victory over the Super Eagles, making this AFCON triumph even sweeter than their two previous victories over Ghana in 1992 and 2015.

While it was the 12th time in history that a host country had won the AFCON, and the first since Egypt achieved that feat in 2006, for the Elephants this was no Cinderella tale scripted along with previous host-and-win success stories.

They showed amazing character, almost on the brink of elimination and squeezing through the group stage as one of the best third-placed sides before delivering successive comeback stories in the knockout rounds.

It was fitting that Cote d'Ivoire delivered what has been hailed as the world's best tournament characterised by quality football, a high standard of officiating and world class facilities.

It was the best celebration of African football watched by over two billion people worldwide, according to CAF President, Patrice Motsepe.

The Ivorians may be celebrating a third AFCON title, but African football was the biggest winner this time, as the tournament showcased emerging forces such as Mauritania and Cape Verde who seized their moment as traditional powerhouses such as Ghana, Senegal, Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria failed to impress.

It may not have been a vintage Ivorian side with big name stars -- their most decorated player Didier Drogba was one of their biggest cheerleaders in the stands -- but when it mattered most they showed character, having lost two of their three group matches, including a 4-0 thrashing by Equatorial Guinea that amounted to a national humiliation.

The manner in which they delivered the AFCON success under the guidance of a novice coach Emerson Fae, also defies football logic.

The Ivorian federation country's federation sacked their French coach Jean-Louis Gasset midway through the group phase and placed their destiny in the hands of Fae. With a reputation for discipline, the former Ivorian international has instilled a sense of belief in his team, inspiring players that they have the talent -- and the crowd behind them -- to go far in the competition.

Thanks to Morocco's 1-0 victory over Zambia in Group F, it changed the hosts' destiny, as they clinched a ticket to the knockout stage where they found an inner strength, a resilience that defied all odds.

With a newfound determination, the Elephants rallied together, channelling their collective willpower into a relentless pursuit of victory, eliminating defending champions Senegal, Mali, DR Congo and Nigeria by fighting from behind to clinch clinical victories that underscored their indomitable character.

Even against Nigeria, the Elephants fought from a goal down to draw even in the second half before Haller scored the winning goal whose importance extends beyond the pitch but also defines the striker's resilience, perseverance and hope as he completed a difficult journey from battling testicular cancer to delivering perhaps his most important goal yet.

Despite facing immense challenges and setbacks, he never gave up on his dream of returning to football and achieving success on the pitch through a collective team effort and a positive mind-set.

While Fae joins compatriot Yeo Martial for delivering two of the country's three titles, his story and impact is even more fascinating. He not only joined a list of African coaches to win the AFCON, but the 40-year-old became the manager to win the title without starting the tournament as head coach of his team.

Having previously spent a decade working with the youth teams of French side Nice prior to leading the reserves of French Ligue 1 side Clermont, Fae has coped with everything thrown at him so far however, showing boldness when dropping star midfielder Franck Kessie, among others, in his first game in charge as well as making expert use of his bench in every game.

Last Wednesday, he had to reshuffle once again after four players -- including captain Serge Aurier and Mali match-winner Oumar Diakite -- were missing through suspension.

Fae's leadership and tactical acumen were pivotal in revitalizing the team as he established himself as a figure of authority and inspiration. He fostered a sense of confidence and unity within the squad.

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He emphasized the importance of collective effort and instilled a belief in the players' capabilities, prompting a shift in mentality and performance.

His coaching style focused on maximizing the potential of each player and creating a cohesive unit on the field. Fae's bold decision-making and tactical adjustments showcased his adaptability and strategic thinking.

Despite the coaching change, Fae and the players acknowledged the foundation laid by Gasset, crediting the Frenchman for his contributions and a recognition of continuity within the team despite a few tactical adjustments and a change in mentality.

While the swift action taken to appoint Fae underscored the importance of decisiveness in leadership, the AFCON success presents an even bigger responsibility for the Ivorian federation to take a decision on the future of the young coach after proving himself on the biggest stage of his career.

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