BATA,Equatorial Guinea, February 9 – Changes in style and personnel by coach Herve Renard combined to crown Ivory Coast African champions again in Equatorial Guinea at the weekend.
Since first winning the Cup of Nations in 1992, a lot has been expected from the talented footballers of the cocoa-producing west African country.
But they have promised more than they have delivered, even in the heydays of the country’s ‘golden generation’ led by now retired Didier Drogba.
They were beaten in the 2006 final by hosts Egypt on penalties and six years later lost another final, also after a shootout, to unfancied Zambia in Gabon.
But all that was forgotten late Sunday as Ivory Coast pipped Ghana 9-8 on penalties in port city Bata after 120 goalless minutes.
In Equatorial Guinea during the past three weeks, the Elephants played better as a team under French coach Herve Renard, especially when they did not have the ball.
They regrouped better defensively and enjoyed potent options in attack, including Wilfried Bony, Seydou Doumbia, Salomon Kalou and Lassina Traore.
Renard also mixed his talented players with grafters like Serey Die, Serge Wilfried Kanon and Eric Bailly.
The Frenchman, who masterminded Zambia’s triumph of the Elephants three years ago, has silenced critics in the Ivory Coast after he was criticised for a poor qualifying campaign.
Ivory Coast, used to cruising through elimination competitions, twice conceded four goals and needed a draw in their final game at home against Cameroon to be sure of qualifying.
Renard acknowledged he had created “a different but fascinating” Ivory Coast and was also forthright about what could have caused a change in the team’s fortune with him in charge.
“The new Ivory Coast are more willing to listen,” he said while stressing that the pre-tournament training camp in Abu Dhabi gave him the chance to work productively with the team.
He added that the 1-0 win over Cameroon in a final Group D match strengthened his belief that the Cup of Nations tournament favourites could be champions again in Equatorial Guinea.
“After we beat a very good Cameroon in a very tough group, I believed we could win this tournament,” he said.
“Our first two games (against Mali and Guinea) were very difficult, but we never stopped believing in ourselves.
“And even when we were losing 2-0 in the penalty shootout in the final against Ghana, we never gave up.”
Skipper Yaya Toure credited part of their success to Renard, saying he pushed the team, including threatening to bench him if he did not work.
The Ivorians ousted top-ranked African team Algeria 3-1 in the quarter-finals, before defeating the Democratic Republic of Congo by the same score in the semi-finals to set up what was billed a ‘dream’ final against west African neighbours Ghana.
The mental strength of the squad was tested when first-choice goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo was ruled out of the decider because of a knee injury suffered against DR Congo.
Boubacar ‘Copa’ Barry, long vilified as the weakest link in the team, replaced the injured Sewe Sport goalkeeper for his first match in Equatorial Guinea.
The 36-year-old ‘Copa’ rose to the occasion by saving two penalties for Ivory Coast as they won 9-8 on penalties.
“I have been criticised, but I am always willing to improve,” said the long-serving goalkeeper.
“I am not great because of my talent or my height, but because I always want to improve. I worked hard for the team and God rewarded me.”