Finally a final of the Africa Cup of Nations worth its name is here. You could argue it has been a good seven years late with Ghana meeting Ivory Coast in a dream final that has often been wrecked by what most experts say has been the weak mentality of both sides.
When the Black Stars, with the bright red, gold and green colours shine over the Estadio du Bata on Sunday and the Elephants stomp into the grounds in their bright orange outfits, the mission will be simple on both sides. It will be to end years of a trophy drought and rid themselves of the unwanted tag of chokers on the biggest stage of Africa football.
There is something strikingly similar about the recent struggles of Ghana and Ivory Coast. Both have had superbly talented players but both have found the Nations Cup title very difficult to win.
Ghana’s last came 33 years ago in 1982. Ivory Coast had their last one in 1992 when they beat Ghana in one of the most gripping penalty shootouts you will ever witness on the international stage. That Ivorian triumph was at the expense of one of the most talented teams Ghana has ever produced.
Abedi Pele, Tony Yeboah, Kwesi Appiah, Tony Baffoe and others were in their prime. Younger stars like Isaac Asare and Nii Odartey Lamptey represented the future. Ghana was supremely confident after dispatching Nigeria in the semi final but without the inspiration of Abedi Pele, the Black Stars fumbled.
Two years later, the Elephants knocked Ghana out again, this time in the quarter finals. They were the new arch enemies and when Ghana tore them into bits in the 1996 Nations Cup, the relief was mega.
Maybe that rivalry is one of the reasons why many Ghanaians have looked on with a mix of admiration and envy as Ivory Coast produced the best players on the continent. Quietly we wished they were on our side. Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Zokora, Drogba. The names roll off the tongue. But years ago as they stumbled from one Nations Cup disappointment to the other, Abedi Pele told me they just did not have the mental strength to win.
And there are facts to bear that out. The loss to Egypt in the finals of the 2006 final was to be expected in a way. Egypt have always been a strong force and on home soil they were unbeatable. But in 2008, at the Kumasi Sports Stadium they were swept away 4-1 by the same side in the semi finals. In 2010 they lost in the quarter finals to Algeria, lost the 2012 finals to Zambia on penalties and then failed to reach the semi finals in 2013.
It is no wonder they have been referred to variously as the Holland and Portugal of African football; Incredible talent, soft bellies.
It is an accusation that some say applies to Ghana too. The Black Stars are the perfect example of a team that lifts your hopes up and sends it crushing. When the generation of Michael Essien, Stephen Appiah, John Mensah, John Paintsil, Sulley Muntari and Asamoah Gyan emerged at the 2006 World Cup, the expectation was that they will end the long Afcon trophy draught. They have failed miserably. There have been three semi final finishes and one final loss since then but for a country that has four nations’ cup titles, that is simply not good enough.
So Sunday is redemption time for two set of players eager to add WINNERS to their many adjectives. And for the rest of the continent, the desire to do that should inspire a fascinating final.
Their paths to the final have also suggested this will be proper edge of the seat stuff. Both Ghana and Ivory Coast arrived in Equatorial Guinea without some of their biggest names in recent years but with two massive names in coaching on their benches.
Ivory Coast no longer have Zokora, Kalou is a benchwarmer for them and the goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, considered a weak link for years has been replaced by the more competent home based star Gbohou. Sol Bamba is gone; there is no Emmanuel Ebuoe with Serge Aurier, Eric Bailly and Konan the new pillars at the back.
Ghana meanwhile left behind Michael Esien, Sulley Muntari, Kevin Prince Boateng who were primarily held responsible for a summer of chaos when their world cup campaign descended into fuss in Brazil over bonuses and allowances.
Those big egos have been replaced by younger players with a burning desire to win but also with incredible experience on their side.
If Asamoah Gyan leads them out on Sunday, it will be his second final. Dede Ayew will play in his second too, having lost in 2010 to Egypt in Angola. Then there are new comers like Afriyie Acquah and Mubakar Wakaso who have added steel to the midfield.
In a department that many say will determine who wins; Acquah and Wakaso’s ability to cope with the masterful Yaya Toure could prove key. Then they have to worry about dealing with the combative Serry Die too.
The Ivorians have Gervinho too, a man who tortured Ghana in a group stage meeting in 2010 and has grown in stature and ability recently. The Ghanaian response to Gervinho is Christian Atsu. He may not get games at Everton where he is on loan from Chelsea but he has stepped up in superb fashion in the knockout stages with two goals, two assists and two man of the match performances so far. His pace should provide a fascinating contest against an Ivorian defence that has struggled at times.
You can’t say same about the Ghana defence that has faced only six shots, conceded three goals in five games and looked a competent and well organised unit. As they will now however, when Wilfred Bony is in town, anything is possible.
With Dede Ayew and Gyan likely to be available too, Ghana will feel they have their own aces. No one expected the Black Stars to be here. Now an entire nation expects them to avoid a third defeat and rid themselves of the unwanted tag of chokers on the big stage.
It is a case of who will be third time lucky in Malabo. I desperately hope it is Ghana. Now amount of journalism objectivity can hide that.
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