When the draw for the Cup of Nations was made in Durban late last year, Togo in Group D was seen as a comfortable three points for their adversaries Côte d’Ivoire, Tunisia and Algeria.
When the combat commenced for real, Côte d’Ivoire had to wait until the 87th minute before Togo were vanquished in their opening game on 22 January. Algeria couldn’t beat them, folding 2-0 and Tunisia , needing all three points to move into the last eight, could only manage a draw.
Togo finished second behind Côte d’Ivoire and reached the quarter-finals for the first time in their eighth appearance at the Cup of Nations.
Coach Didier Six says the qualification is a dynamic riposte to the analysts and pundits who denigrated the team.
“We were far from being favourites in Group D,” says 58-year-old Six. “We were far from being considered capable of finishing second. People were saying that Tunisia, Algeria and Côte d’Ivoire would get three points off Togo. But we are here in the quarter-final and that’s all that counts.”
The sweetness of such qualification squeezed from such acerbity will enhance the reputation of the former France international who took over the squad 15 months ago.
It’s his first taste of a high-profile team.
“It’s not an easy job,” he admits. “But actually that’s what is appealing. I know now that the job enthuses me and because it does that and because I’m a perfectionist, when I get interested in something, I go for it 100 per cent.”
The tenacity that defined his playing career with the likes of Michel Platini and Alain Giresse has seeped through to his players.
“I remember a game against Guinea just after I took over,” he recalls. “We were 1-0 up and Guinea were awarded a penalty. It was hotly disputed. After it went in, everybody’s head dropped. I saw that the slightest setback threw them. Now a setback inspires them to come back and it’s a big force. All the work done during the past 15 months is starting to bear fruit.”
Togo’s surge into the last eight will help in part to alleviate the horror of their last venture to the Cup of Nations in Angola in 2010. The team’s buses were attacked as they passed through the northern Angolan enclave of Cabinda. Three people were killed and nine injured in the assault.
Togo withdrew to mourn the dead and were disqualified by the organisers, the Confederation of African Football, before they could renegotiate a return.
“The players have crossed a threshold since that incident,” says Six. “Now they have to go further. They have the possibility to go into the semi-final.”
The tie against Burkina Faso at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit will be a clash of the underdogs. Burkina Faso, who were in a group comprising defending champions Zambia and Nigeria, were effectively Togo’s doppelganger.
The key will be which side manages to escape the perception of overachievement so that it can actually perform even better than expected.
“If a player doesn’t understand this big moment, he’s crazy” Six says. “But it’s not the case in my group. They are intelligent. I heard the captain Emmanuel Adebayor say the other day: ‘Nobody is a star here. We are 23 players for the group.’ ”
“That attitude is good enough for me,” Six confides.