West African derbies possess a vivid intensity rooted in ancient quarrels over lost lands, minerals and real or perceived betrayals. Guinea’s games against Ghana are, at the best of times, tough. And the Guinea coach Michel Dussuyer said he knew from the kick-off that the worst of times were upon him: his side started with three back passes. Within a few minutes, the players were taking the ball forward.
But that was only after it was fished out of their net. Christian Atsu, unmarked, sidefooted home after André Ayew’s back heel, had foxed three defenders.
It was going to be an arduous day in the field.
A chronicle of the quarter-final in Malabo will show 3-0 for Ghana. It is an apt result. 3-0 is the standard default score line.
Quite why Guinea failed to turn up for the biggest game in their recent football history will perplex Dussuyer and the country’s football administrators as they review their performances in the Cup of Nations.
After all, they had seemed prepared. On the eve of the clash skipper Ibrahima Traoré was in bullish mode. “We want to go as far as possible,” he said. “We know that Ghana are a big team with a lot of big players. If we go out, we’ll be disappointed.”
One match later, the 26-year-old midfielder’s deflation was at least tinged with perspective. “Only two or three players have been in the quarter-finals of this competition,” he said. “Most of us haven’t been at this stage. Perhaps the Ghanaian team are used to being here more than us and they showed it. We have no regrets about what we did in this tournament. But perhaps we will have regrets about the way we performed in the match.”
And the snapshots will be instructive. The hurried passes; Baissama’s Sankoh’s skewed clearance that led to the second goal just before half-time and goalkeeper Naby Yattara’s ugly hack at Asamoah Gyan’s legs; actions betraying stress.
And yet the Guineans had striven purposefully to arrive at the quarter-finals. They drew with their putative betters Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Mali in Group D. The 1-1 stalemate with Mali in the final game on 28 January led to a surreal landscape the following afternoon where the modern multi-billion dollar football complex determined a group stage runner-up with the drawing of lots in a hotel parlour.
From their disjointed display in the quarter-final, it appeared that Guinea pigged out on their luck in that lottery. The ricochets and odd bounces all seemed to go Ghana’s way.
“We just didn’t seem to be aggressive enough or focused enough,” reflected Dussuyer. “Against teams like Ghana, if you are not at 100 per cent you will lose. We knew that and so I’m disappointed.”
Like his skipper, 51-year-old Dussuyer says that disappointment will subside as he looks back on a tournament in which the minnows held their own against three regional heavyweights.
A run to the last eight has helped to present an image of Guinea that eschews the Ebola narrative. It has also fostered a team spirit. A contrast, says veteran defender Kamil Zayatte with yesteryear.
“When I broke into the team eight years ago, we didn’t really know each other,” said the 29-year-old. “There were always new players coming in and players leaving. The difference is now we know each other. We’ve been together for a long time and we’re more like a family and the coach is like our father and we try to fight and do the best for each other.”
Zayatte missed the quarter-final with Ghana through injury. He was part of the 2008 squad which reached the last eight at the Cup of Nations in Ghana and his presence would have added steel and savvy to the back line during the Malabo meltdown.
Back in 2008, Guinea lost to Ghana during the group stages. They drew when the sides played in the pool rounds at the 2012 competition. Two matches during qualifiers for the tournament in Equatorial Guinea ended in a defeat and a draw. The last eight tie in Malabo was Guinea’s fifth Cup of Nations game in which they have failed to overcome the Black Stars.
Guinea’s men are on their way back home to what will surely be a warm and rapturous celebration. They have done their land proud with three magnificent performances. Those were nothing to do with luck.