Francois Zahoui is the odd man out in the line-up of coaches for Wednesday’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals, but he is also at the helm of the team who are the hot favourites for the title. The Côte d’Ivoire boss flies the flag for fellow African coaches in the tournament as he seeks to emulate the achievements of CK Gyamfi, Clive Barker, Hassan Shehata and compatriot, and advisor, Yeo Martial in winning the Nations Cup.
Zahoui, who has already created history by becoming the first African international to compete in Serie A, pits his wits on Wednesday against a man he came across during his playing days – Frenchman Alain Giresse, who is in charge of Mali. The two played against each other on the field in the French league. “He was a wizard with the ball,” remembers Giresse, no slouch himself at duping defenders.
But any bonhomie will have long disappeared by kick-off in Libreville where the two coaches take charge of west African rivals and the prize of a place in the final. The game at Stade l’Amitie is preceded by Wednesday’s other semi-final in Bata where both coaches hail from Europe but have some of Africa’s top talent at their disposal. Zambia’s ambitious French coach Herve Renard will see his side take on Ghana and Goran Stevanovic, a Serbian with less than year in the African game but edging closer to the continent’s top prize.
Ivorians ready for breakthrough?
The question of Zahoui’s responsibility to prove the worth of African coaches is a tough one to answer, he says. “Football is after all a universal game,” says the shaven-headed coach, who had flowing dreadlocks in his playing days. “But it is true, African coaches sometimes have not had the best conditions to work in, or lack the means that expatriate coaches seem to be able to elicit. But there’s no real debate about whether it is better to have a local coach or a coach from Europe. It is a matter of trust and confidence. I’ve been given the means to do my job, and I have a confidence that has been placed in me. Plus, I have a group of players of great ability. Those are the most important parameters.”
It is with those players that Zahoui will seek to put the Ivorians on course for their first Nations Cup title since their only win 20 years ago, when Martial was in charge. They are hot favourites but it does not sit well with Zahoui. “It’s a difficult thing to be the favourites when you play against a team who really have nothing to lose,” he said. “We know that Mali will play with great heart and all these predictions mean nothing. Our objective remains to finish the tournament as the best in Africa and if we remain focus and determined then we can beat them.”
Giresse has already called the Ivorians the “Brazil of Africa” and made clear he has a major challenge ahead. His side is exhausted after the travails of the tournament, especially the energy-sapping drama of beating co-hosts Gabon on penalties in Sunday’s quarter-final and, as a result, pre-match training has been minimal. “It is not a game where I have to motivate much,” he said before addressing how his team would handle the main Elephant in attack. “I don't have an anti-Didier Drogba scheme, but I've got an anti-Côte d’Ivoire scheme. Playing against Drogba, my defenders know as much as I do about him.”
We know that Mali will play with great heart and all these predictions mean nothing.
But the former France FIFA World Cup™ star insisted his team would not be shy about their opportunity. “It will be a competitive game,” he said. "If you start talking about a game with fear then it's not worth coming to the stadium. We are aware of the task, but let us not introduce fear into the equation.”
Zambians plan Ghana upset
For Zambia, Renard has also a similar situation, given little chance against the Black Stars – ranked second in Africa in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking behind the Ivorians. Zambia have achieved their ambition of a final four place but Renard says they are now aiming for Sunday’s match in Libreville in spite of being underdogs.
“Yes, Ghana are the favourites, they are the best team in Africa right now. I know all of their capabilities,” he added, emphasising his role as assistant coach when Ghana hosted the Nations Cup four years ago. “But we will have something special for them,” he added with a smile.