By Taimour Lay in Bata*
After a goalless extra time at the 2015 African Cup of Nations finals, Les Elephants on Sunday unsettled Ghana’s Black Stars with a sensational 9-8 penalty shootout victory.
In the end the hero had to be Boubacar Barry, the reserve Ivory Coast goalkeeper, for so long maligned as accident prone, the 35 year old who had become the symbol of near-misses for Les Elephants.
Barry, who only played the final because of a late injury to Sylvain Gbohouo, not only saved two penalties, he scored the winning one himself to beat Ghana in Bata. He wept on the pitch, mobbed by his team-mates.
If the previous 120 minutes of football was goalless, the drama of the ending swept away any dissatisfaction at the quality of the game between these two heavyweights.
AFCON finals do not tend to produce goals – indeed, just three since 2006. Every Ivory Coast final – in 1992, 2006, 2012 and 2015 – has ended goalless leading to penalties. Nevertheless, more was expected than no shots on target.
The caution was a product of the two sides being evenly matched but both have been haunted by past failures, their size and pedigree in African football counting for nothing at tournament after tournament – you have to go back to 1992 for Ivory Coast’s last AFCON title; and to 1982 for Ghana’s.
It explains the nerves among fans and journalists, with omens, most of them bad, debated before the game. Tony Baffoe, the man who missed the penalty kick for Ghana that gave Ivory Coast the title in ’92, led the Black Stars on to the field for the warm-up, causing furrowed brows among Ghanaian fans.
And the late announcement that Gbohouo was ruled out meaning the inclusion of Barry, an unsuccessful participant in seven AFCONs, was greeted with shudders. Until the shoot-out, of course.
Some history was even more personal. Ghana’s vice-captain Andre Ayew had family demons to exorcise. His father, Abedi “Pele” Ayew, inspired Ghana to the final of AFCON 1992 but was suspended for the final which his team lost without him.
Ayew has been Ghana’s bright spark at this tournament and was inconsolable at the end, helped up to the podium by his team-mates.
In front of a crowd of under 15,000, dominated by Ivory Coast fans, Yaya Toure’s team started the fastest, with Gervinho in particular making inroads, setting up Max Gradel for a shot that flew high.
But Ghana, with Asamoah Gyan back in the team, came into the game after twenty minutes, Ayew foraging fruitfully down the left.
Christian Atsu hit the post from 25 yards on the half-hour, Ayew then did the same from a tight angle. Suddenly Ivory Coast looked flummoxed as Ghana spread the ball and foraged wide, leaving Toure a spectator in the middle.
The Black Stars were lucky to keep 10 men on the pitch before the break after Asamoah Gyan stamped on Eric Bailly off the ball. Ivory Coast’s Die Serey could have gone early too for a hip-high challenge.
The second-half degenerated into stalemate. Ivory Coast manager Herve Renard made the first move, bringing on Seydou Doumbia for Gradel but Ghana still made the running, Chelsea winger Atsu constantly finding space on the right and delivering dangerous balls.
The longer the second-half wore on, the more the prospect of extra-time and penalties loomed – just as it had done in 1992 when these two sides drew 0-0 and Ivory Coast prevailed 11-10 in Dakar.
“I’m very happy for all the Ivorians,” said Frenchman Renard after picking up his second AFCON title as manager, having won the trophy with Zambia in 2012. “They’ve waited 20 years for this. Never give up – this is the most important thing.”
Captain Yaya Toure was almost overcome with emotion. “The penalties were a trial, particularly with the memories [of the shoot-out defeats to Egypt in 2006 and to Renard’s Zambia in 2012]. I’ve failed twice in finals and it was hard to take. Today is fantastic. It was a great stress because of the penalties. In 2012 against the coach my brother missed but today the penalties were something I hate. I must congratulate “Copa” [Barry]. He showed us the true example of solidarity.”
Toure also dismissed any talk of retirement from international football. “Leaving? Retired? Me? I’m 31 my friend. No, talk to my brother [Kolo]. When you see something like this, you want to repeat it.”