Both deemed as being fundamentally blemished, this was meant to represent a treacherous tournament for West African duo Ghana and Ivory Coast – yet the pair now stand within a single of righting a decade of AFCON wrongs.
Throughout the 21st century, mainstays Ghana and Ivory Coast have been firmly amongst the continent’s most dominant forces, yet neither has transferred their vast array of riches into AFCON success.
Ivory Coast in particular failed to utilise an abundant potential, with the Elephants golden generation left with little more than a string of near misses under the guise of favourites to show for their endeavours.
Didiers Drogba and Zokora have since departed, yet there was a notion that those consistent failings in the face of anxiety had left deep lying psychological scars. On top of that qualification indicated Ivory Coast were harbouring a backline akin to a ticking time bomb.
So what has changed for the Elephants? The answer is numerous factors however the overriding theme is the appointment of the mystical Herve Renard – who earned legendary status following the masterminding of Zambia’s implausible 2012 triumph.
The Frenchman has seemingly succeeded where so many before him failed, by both moulding a cohesive collective out of Ivory Coast’s extensive resources and instilling a sense of character and self-belief that has long deserted the Elephants.
Tactically, Renard has also adapted the West Africans, by employing a less naïve approach which places a greater emphasis on defensive solidarity.
Renard’s appointment has coincided with the introduction of much need new blood. The likes of Serge Aurier, Wilfried Kanon and Eric Bally are just a selection of the fresh faces not carrying the same psychological damage as the remaining components of the much maligned golden generation.
There is undeniably now a balance and identity to Ivory Coast that alluded them for so long – what has infused so far in Equatorial Guinea would suggest we are witnessing the birth of a very different Ivoirian animal.
What of the earlier mentioned defensive issues? Kolo Toure. The former Arsenal and Manchester City defender has been a rock since a recall from retirement prior to the Elephants concluding qualification dates.
Renard has brought about a much needed discipline defensively, but the benefits wouldn’t have been fully reaped without the rejuvenated Toure’s presence.
The case of Ghana is somewhat more difficult to decipher. The Black Stars are undeniably enigmatic and arguably have been overly so ever since the departure of Milovan Rajevac post Ghana’s seminal to the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals.
Their recent AFCON history tells a story of being the perennial bridesmaids but never the bride – prior to this tournament Ghana could boast four consecutive semi-finals but only one of which was converted into a final appearance.
The frustration of their incapability to scale the ultimate heights was compounded by last four defeats to the unfancied duo of Burkina Faso and Zambia, in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
If the mood was one of exasperation before, it shifted to angst following the most desperate of World Cup showings that was categorised by infighting, incompetence and unrest.
The notion of humiliation was barely lifted by a substandard qualification campaign, whilst latterly the appointment of Avram Grant did little instigate positivity surrounding the Black Stars.
Renard’s impact on the Elephants is unmistakable, yet it is difficult to identify what Grant has genuinely done for Ghana, with many harshly casting the Israeli as a mere bystander to his side’s run to the last four – should Ghana go on to loft the title then his detractors will be forced to taste at least an element of humble pie.
The disorder that typified the humiliating chapter in Brazil appears to have been appeased. At the same time in negotiating numerous hairy moments on their way to ultimately topping the group of death, Ghana have displayed substantial proficiency in situations of adversity.
The renewed sense of professionalism was also evident by the manner in which the four-time champions impeccably responded to the ugly scenes in Malabo on Thursday.
Ivory Coast’s route into the last four has arguably been more arduous – the victory over Algeria was perhaps the performance of the tournament – nonetheless Ghana deserve immense credit for the manner in which they rebounded from an opening date humbling at the hands of Senegal, which left them on the cusp of an ignominious exit.
The Elephants newly found mental fortitude will without doubt encounter its toughest assessment to date, considering they will unequivocally enter the showpiece as favourites – particularly if Ghana’s inspirational leader Asamoah Gyan fails to regain full fitness.
The stakes are, however, extensive for both side and just maybe the outcome of the 30th AFCON final will hinge on who best harbours the pressure of such a situation.
The Ivorians perhaps hold the edge in regards to match winners, with Gervinho, Wilfried Bony and Max Gradel all enjoying varying degrees of prosperous tournaments – at the same time there is evidence of Yaya Toure ominously moving through the gears.
Ghana’s hopes of inspiration will largely rest at the feet of Andre Ayew – particularly if Gyan doesn’t make it – who will likely be amongst the frontrunners for player of the tournament.
In what has been a damming 48 hours for African football – accounting for both the crass scenes of Thursday night and Friday’s farcical sanctions imposed on Morocco – now more than ever before it is essential that the AFCON final generates headlines for all the right reasons.
Thankfully the meeting of two super powers with more than a point to prove offers up ample potential for a memorable finale, to what has beneath the controversy of recent days been a hugely successful tournament amidst considerable hardship.
Success is long overdue for two nations who having endured lengthy struggles in regards to embracing potential, are showcasing signs of finally realising their true capacity – albeit in the case of Ivory Coast better later than never.