Franck Kessié brings Ivory Coast back to life as Afcon hosts bury Senegal | Africa Cup of Nations 2023
A week ago, Ivory Coast were on the end of a 4-0 battering from Equatorial Guinea. Now they are in the last eight of the Africa Cup of Nations having eliminated the champions. They are a team that has repeatedly seemed dead and buried since the tournament began – never more so than when a goal behind with four minutes remaining on Monday – and yet somehow Sébastien Haller’s zombie army marches on to a quarter-final against Mali or Burkina Faso.
Senegal, having been the best side in the group stage, had seemed in control until the introduction of Haller. This had seemed like a classic case of scoring an early goal and then seeing the game out. It was not, and so the curse goes on: no defending champion has made it to the quarter-finals since Egypt in 2010. “We deserved to go to the quarter-final,” said the Senegal coach, Aliou Cissé, who professed himself disappointed yet proud – “but this is the game of football so we can’t complain”.
For Ivory Coast, the second-half collapse against Equatorial Guinea had had the sense of a terminal defeat, the sort of capitulation that can stain a nation’s psyche for years, yet they woke up a week later to find themselves still inexplicably in the competition. (Or perhaps not entirely inexplicably: had Avram Grant’s Zambia scored one more goal in any of their games, Ivory Coast would not have sneaked through as a best third-placed team.)
They did, though, come round to find they had lost their coach, Jean Louis-Gasset dismissed in the wake of the Equatoguinean humiliation. Quite what the 70-year-old Frenchman, who had no previous experience of African football, was doing there in the first place is another question. After the rejection of an audacious approach to the France women’s team to borrow Hervé Renard, who had led them to the Cup of Nations in 2015, Ivory Coast have ended up under the temporary charge of the former Reading midfielder Emerse Faé, who had never previously coached a game in his life. For a country that spent a reported $1bn on staging the tournament, it all seemed rather careless.
The one positive for Ivory Coast was that they had nothing to lose; nobody expects anything from the undead. And perhaps age means less to zombies; the quest for eternal youth probably seems futile to the recently disinterred, which might explain the return to the forward line of the 36-year-old Max Gradel for his first start of the tournament as one of five changes from the defeat to Equatorial Guinea.
The problem is that, while the undead may be very good at attacking vast icy walls on the northern borders, or farmhouses in rural Pennsylvania, or pubs in Crouch End, they’re not great with crosses. It took just four minutes for a left-wing delivery from Sadio Mané to find Habib Diallo in the box, and he took a meaty shovel to the head of Ivory Coast’s hopes by swivelling and belting his shot on the turn into the top corner.
There was a sense of the Ivorians regaining some self-esteem in what followed as they controlled possession. Perhaps it would have been different if Mané’s lunge on Ibrahim Sangaré had resulted in a red card rather than a yellow but Senegal didn’t exactly seem barricaded in the pub cellar with an ageing rifle and a diminishing supply of bullets.
But the thing with the undead is that they are notoriously hard to finish off. There was always the threat that a suppurating arm would thrust up from the grave to seize an unsuspecting Senegalese ankle, but with Édouard Mendy calmly claiming a number of crosses, the bodies remained safely buried – at least until Haller, whose absence through injury has been such a problem for Ivory Coast, came on for Jean-Philippe Krasso after 72 minutes.
Almost immediately Mendy was called into two saves but when Haller’s pass then released Nicolas Pépé, the keeper took him down. This was what Ivory Coast had been missing; this was what they are capable of. “We had to recover our skills as warriors,” said Faé. FranckKessié scored from the spot and Senegal, having been four minutes from the quarter-final, suddenly found the battle was not won: the clammy fingers of the rising corpse had them by the calf and had dragged them to a shootout.
Once in their grip, they could not shake them off. Nottingham Forest’s Moussa Niakhaté hit the post with his penalty, leaving Kessié to convert the decisive kick. Senegal’s title defence was over and the Ivorians, improbably, are not merely not dead but are dancing in disbelieving celebration.