It was the biggest defeat a tournament host of the Africa Cup of Nations had ever suffered. Ivory Coast fell apart utterly in the second half of their final group game against Equatorial Guinea. If they’d retained a sense of perspective they’d have realised that even a one- or two-goal defeat was likely to be enough to see them through, but their heads were gone and Emilio Nsue kept scoring the same goal. It finished 4-0, the largest defeat for any major tournament host since Brazil’s 7-1 capitulation against Germany in the 2014 World Cup semi-final, and that made progress improbable.
The past three weeks have been the story of what followed. There was some low-key rioting, with cars and shops burned out. Ivory Coast’s 70-year-old French coach Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked. On his 40th birthday the former Reading midfielder Emerse Faé was appointed, having never been a head coach before. He had no idea whether he’d have any matches to take charge of.
But Ghana conceded twice in injury time against Mozambique, Zambia lost to Morocco and Ivory Coast made it to the last 16 not so much through the back door as up the tree and through the bathroom window.
With the country joking about their team of revenants, those who have returned from the dead, Faé then oversaw a series of improbable comebacks, culminating in Sunday’s 2-1 won over Nigeria, when the winner was scored by Sébastien Haller, who 18 months ago was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
How much narrative does a tournament need? I was in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon for Zambia’s emotion-drenched triumph in 2012 and nothing will ever be greater than that, but this, in its preposterousness, came close as the hosts went from embarrassment to disbelief to euphoria.
But there is a broader point here which is that if tournaments can be won amid such chaos – are, let’s be honest, more fun for being won amid such chaos – what is the point in preparation?
As England head to Germany in the summer looking to end 58 years of hurt, they do so under a technocratic manager in Gareth Southgate who believes, more than anything else, in diligent research.
On the Ivorian principle they’d be better off binning Southgate after the groups, handing the job to a former player with no frontline experience, changing the formation and four or five players, choosing a self-mocking but somehow self-fulfilling nickname, and hoping some weird alchemy carries them home.
But that’s just the nature of football: one of the glories of its low-scoring nature is that chance plays a part – which was what confounded Pep Guardiola so regularly in the Champions League; for a long time the great underlying narrative of the competition was his ongoing wrestle with the fates, his attempt to impose order on the chaos that is football’s natural state.
In league seasons, over 38 games, the best team usually wins; over the seven-game span of a tournament, with four knockout rounds and the possibility of penalties, luck, confidence, form and momentum have a huge role to play.
Which is why those claims before tournaments that “anything less than the semi-finals” would be failure are so nonsensical. A team could play brilliantly in the group and lose unluckily to a top side in the last 16 in a game in which they played well but were undone by a goalkeeper in unbeatable form/poor refereeing/a freakish bounce/another good side playing well and have a far better tournament than a team who ground their way to the semis.
But that’s not to say that countries shouldn’t prepare. England introduced the Elite Player Performance Plan in 2011 and, three years later, the England DNA blueprint. Southgate, as the under-21 coach at the time, was a key figure in that. It’s been an obvious success: England’s record in youth football has improved dramatically and Southgate now has a fleet of technically-gifted young attacking players to call on.
The result is that England, having spent years talking themselves up because of the abilities of one or two good players, history and a self-diagnosed innate fighting spirit, now habitually go into tournaments as one of the genuine half-dozen favourites. It’s likely only France will go to the Euros with a better squad. The better your squad, the better you prepare, the better your chances.
But you still need a spark from somewhere, something that gives a team a sense of its own destiny. And sometimes, as the example of Ivory Coast proves, football is illogical enough that the spark can be a 4-0 defeat. Sometimes mad stuff just happens.