When Michel Dussuyer recounts the stories from his Cup of Nations, several of the tales will feature the moments he spent in hotel lounges.
He’s not far from one of them as he seeks a cigarette from the half a dozen remaining in the pack.
“I smoke too much,” he confesses with a resigned smile. He inhales. He’s primed to go back. Nicotine consumption was at the heart of the hours he’s preparing to relive; when his two-pack-a-day habit rose exponentially.
He leans forward on one of the poolside chairs, deposits the cigarettes and lighter on the white plastic table and remembers.
“The energy we spent waiting for the draw was incredible. It was a difficult day. As a player or as part of the technical staff, we’re competitive people but when you wait for a draw you can’t do anything. We were just waiting and trying to be patient. We’re not used to that. We want to be in the battle, taking part. I can’t remember how many I smoked that day.”
Dussuyer gathered with his players in the lounges at the Sofitel President in Malabo, while members of the Guinea delegation went across town to the Hilton to assist at the drawing of the lots which would determine their future.
Dussuyer’s team had the luck of the draw. Mali’s ball was picked out bearing the number three. Guinea were through to the last eight as runners-up in Group D.
After the inevitable euphoria, reality descended. The team would have to gird themselves for the quarter-final against Ghana, a side they knew all too well. There had been a 1-1 draw and a 3-1 victory for Ghana during the qualifying stages for the 2015 competition.
Because of the Ebola epidemic in Guinea, the national side played its "home" games in neutral venues. The match in Casablanca produced the stalemate and the game in Tamale in northern Ghana resulted in a controversial win.
Both ties were evenly contested. Ghana had no reason to believe that they had been fortunate to avoid a clash with the altogether trickier customers of Mali.
Dussuyer too was confident.
The 55-year-old had witnessed growing maturity among his squad. They held their own in Group D finishing with 1-1 draws against Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Mali. If Guinea were considered the makeweights of the pool at the start of the event, perceptions had been vividly reconfigured.
“We didn’t have the best squad,” Dussuyer admitted. “But we fought hard on the pitch and every day we tried to increase our level so we could be on a par with the great teams in our group.”
On the eve of the quarter-final there was the requisite fighting talk from injured skipper Kamil Zayatte. Striker Ibrahima Traoré, who took over as captain, was equally martial. Dussuyer though opted for wily wariness. His was quiet fortitude. But come the match; calamity.
“Directly from the kick-off we played back,” recalled Dussuyer. “One pass back … second pass back and then the third pass back to the goalkeeper who made a nervous clearance. I turned to my assistants and said: ‘The team isn’t here.’ You could see it from the beginning.”
The coach’s snap evaluation was soon confirmed. Within four minutes Guinea were 1-0 down. Kwesi Appiah surged down the left into the penalty area, passed to André Ayew whose cute back-heel across the six yard box eluded three defenders. Christian Atsu, unmarked, sidefooted home past Naby Yattara in the Guinea goal.
The Guinean response did not materialise and as the half-time haven approached, the contest was effectively over. From a throw-in Baissama Sankoh skewed his clearance. It rolled to a disbelieving Appiah who gratefully slotted past Yattara.
Dussuyer, a former keeper at the French club Cannes, hailed Atsu’s second goal as a marvellous strike.
He chested down Wakasu Mubarak’s long pass over to the right wing, stepped inside onto his left foot and from 30 metres out, curled his shot over the backpedalling Yattara.
The defeat ended Guinea’s interest in the 2015 competition. It also brought another moment in the lounges for Dussuyer and his players. Eighteen hours after the loss, the Frenchman announced his resignation as head coach of the Guinea national team.
“I’d been working for five years as coach,” he said “It has been a long road and sometimes it has been exhausting. I need to change, start with new targets, new environments.”
Dussuyer insisted he had decided to leave before the tournament, stressing there had been no pressure to resign from the Guinea football federation. “I wanted to get the team through qualification into the tournament and for us to do well.”
Objectively Guinea fulfilled that desire. An outfit without any players in the world’s leading clubs defied their chunkier west African cousins in the group stages to reach the quarter-finals. The disappointment will be the performance in their final match in Malabo.
“Of course the last game was difficult for all of us,” said Dussuyer. “We did not deserve to finish in such a way with such a result.”
But football is rarely fair. As they revelled in the luck of the draw at the Hilton hotel, the seeds were being sown for their demise.
“We were not as well prepared as Ghana,” reflected Dussuyer. “Ghana played its last game in the group stages 24 hours before us. And in the second-half against Mali I could see that it was becoming difficult for us physically. The following day we travelled from Mongomo to Malabo, waited for the draw in the afternoon in the hotel, there was no training … no rest. We really couldn’t prepare as well as Ghana. And we saw the results of that at the beginning of the game. Ghana was ready to fight and we weren’t. We failed.”
Brutal analysis indeed. But in mitigation Dussuyer and his team had no parameters. The drawing of lots to determine a winner had not happened since the 1988 tournament. Dussuyer experienced the highs and lows of the game within 72 hours. And the aftermath was equally emotional.
Zayatte portrayed the Guinea team as a family. A far more tight-knit collective than the one he entered as a 20-year-old in 2006. While the Sheffield Wednesday defender described himself as the big brother of the group. Dussuyer, he said, was the father. They all looked up to him.
Breaking the news of his departure was difficult, said Dussuyer. “There were some tears. Five years of living together were ending so it wasn’t an easy moment. But it was necessary. Sometimes the change is of benefit to the group. A new coach has a new vision, a new way of doing things so I hope it will work.
“I’ve enjoyed working with a very good squad with a good spirit. Sometimes there are difficult moments but at the end there is a lot of satisfaction. I’m lucky, most times when a coach leaves he cannot say goodbye to his players. He takes his bags and goes. So I’m happy to have been able to say goodbye. I’ve been able to wish them all the best. I think they have a bright future.”
His own short term will be back home in France.
“I have no career priorities,” he said casting a paternal eye into the lounge at a couple of players. “I don’t know what my future will be. I’ll just see what happens. I know I just need to rest.”
He also knows it’s time to light up.