Making their seventh appearance at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, Togo will have their work cut out for them if they want to escape a tough group that includes Algeria, Tunisia as well as pre-tournament favourites Côte d'Ivoire. Midfielder Floyd Ayite told FIFA.com recently that Les Eperviers (Sparrow Hawks) could spring a surprise.
Ayite, who was in the squad that was ambushed two years ago in Angola, said the event was a nightmare that remains with them. "We are back at the Cup of Nations after this tragedy. We will never be able to totally turn the page on that. It will follow us all life long. But it also gives us strength, because defending our colours will be a way to pay a tribute to all the people who were injured then."
But for the team to pay a fitting tribute, the players will have to dig deep in their reserves to overcome stiff opposition. The 23-year-old believes that they can draw some inspiration from their qualifying campaign, which saw them advance to the finals at the expense of Kenya and Gabon. "I am quite confident for Togo. We played very intelligently against Gabon to qualify. Then, against a very good Moroccan team, we won a friendly recently. It is good if people underestimate us because the pressure will be on the other teams and we can benefit from the situation."
Ayite, who was born in France and started his football career with Bordeaux before moving to Stade de Reims in 2011, is aware that their opponents will be tough. "We all know Côte d'Ivoire and their very skilled players. But, so far, the players they have in the team now have never confirmed it by winning an African trophy. So there might be doubt in their heads. As for Tunisia and Algeria, we know that teams from the Maghreb region have skilled players also, but as we recently beat Morocco, so we proved we could deal with those games."
National team provides match practice
Although Ayite has played in the French Ligue 1 for several years, his playing time has been limited. "I have always had to struggle with large competition wherever I played, so I am used to that situation. Since I don't get as much playing time as expected, I try to show my best with my national team. What I cannot do with my club, I have to show with Togo."
Unlike Ayite, his fellow Togolese national team player Kossi Agassa is a regular in the Reims side and the goalkeeper is kept in high regard by the midfielder. "He is like a brother to me, and he gives me good advice." Agassa, however, is not the only player with whom he is in close contact. His biological brother Jonathan, who is four years older, also plays in Ligue 1 for Brest and for the national team. "I hope we will both make the squad for South Africa. We are waiting for the coach's decision."
Ayite is full of praise for his national team coach, Didier Six. The former French international took over the Togo side in November last year, having earlier only gained coaching experience with French club RC Strasbourg. But the former winger, who was a member of the French squad that won the UEFA European Championship in 1984, has plenty of other footballing knowledge. It is something that is not lost on Ayite and his team-mates. "Didier Six brings us his experience after playing at a very high level as a player. He is very demanding and ambitious. We try to be up to it."
But it is not only to Six to which many of the younger Togo players look for inspiration. The highest profile player in the Togo squad, Emmanuel Adebayor, retired after the Cabinda attack. He returned to the squad in November last year and immediately made his presence felt as he scored two of the three goals Togo scored in the 3-2 aggregate victory against Gabon.
Adebayor has again hinted that he may retire from the national team, but it is something that Ayite hopes will not happen. "Emmanuel Adebayor's come-back raised the group to their best. It showed during our last three games, during which we played well and remained unbeaten. ‘Sheyi’ [Adebayor's nickname] brings us his great experience, his habit of playing high-stake games and his thirst for victory. It is a pleasure to play with such a talented player."