No fear for Nouzaret
Pascal Feindouno spelled it out before the tournament had even begun. "Guinea can leave with the trophy," he told FIFA.com ahead of Ghana 2008 kicking off, and despite their opening-day 2-1 loss to the hosts, they have done much to prove their captain right.
Putting together a 3-2 victory over a side such as Morocco was a real statement of intent. Moreover it has left the Syli National with a genuine outsider's chance as the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2008 heads into the knockout phase.
"Of the eight teams still involved, we're obviously the smallest," explains coach Robert Nouzaret, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com. "Even if we came here with the ambition of winning this Africa Cup of Nations, getting out of our group was a tough task. But we're not satisfied with that. Now we want to win our quarter-final."
If they are to make that desire a reality, the Guineans have a mountain to climb, to say the least. Their opponents Côte d'Ivoire are considered by many to be the best outfit in Africa at the moment, and along with Ghana they wear the robes of tournament favourites.
"The Elephants are more than just [Didier] Drogba," adds Nouzaret. "And Didier's importance to the team is about more than just his talent. He has an immense psychological hold on the side. After that, if you take away Drogba they've still got Arouna Kone in terms of pure skill. Then, if you take away Arouna they've got Baky Kone... It gives me a headache just listing all their excellent strikers (laughs)." How better, then, to test the true potential of this Guinea team?
"I'm absolutely convinced that if we win we'll go all the way," continues the Frenchman. "That's what I've been saying in my speeches as we've been preparing for the match. My players will have to be at 200 per cent to have any hope. But if they can do it, nothing will be able to stop them afterwards. They need to be aware that they're capable. I didn't want to tell them too early because I didn't want them to be playing the match beforehand, in their heads. But since we arrived in Sekondi on Friday, I've given them quite a few little reminders."
That has no doubt helped the already excellent atmosphere within the Guinean squad, and Nouzaret admits that keeping team spirit as high as possible is central to his approach: "In spite of a few small pitfalls, we've all been getting on well together. It has to be said that it's been a full-time job creating that ambience since we all met up in January: it's a case of organising all the good intentions towards a single goal. That's why I rotated the squad a lot in the first round. It was my way of keeping everybody interested, and I think the squad responded well to my decisions.
"Still, you have to stay vigilant practically 24 hours a day. But, that said, we have nine white members of staff, plus a Guinean who follows the players everywhere. You need that kind of discipline to stay at the top. The players know what the demands are at the highest level because they experience that every day with their clubs, but when they join up with the national side they have a tendency to forget all too quickly. So we have to find the right balance and make sure we don't turn them off either. We've left them to themselves twice since the competition began."
'If I'd had a machine gun...'
For all the close attention, though, the Syli National briefly succumbed to bad habits against Morocco in their second outing - and to judge by the crispness in his voice, the episode still haunts the man who watched it unfold from the dugout.
"When Morocco scored their first goal, we were still hugging each other and clapping the fans on the right of the pitch. The ball came from the left," he says. "I don't understand how you can finish an opponent (Guinea had just gone 2-0 up after 60 minutes) and let them back into the match in the very next move. If I'd had a machine gun, I would have lined all my players up and shot them in the foot (laughs)."
Such lapses cannot be repeated on Sunday afternoon at the Ohene Djan stadium in Accra, particularly since the encounter holds a special personal significance for Nouzaret. He coached the Elephants between 1998 and 2000, and then returned for a second spell from 2002 to 2004.
"I'm going into this reunion with a lot of pride," he says. "Pride at having given most of the players their start. On the other hand, I regret slightly not having been able to take advantage. But my departure was my own personal choice and I stand by it. And, above everything else, I have enormous respect for this team. They have the potential to be much more than champions of Africa." For the people of Guinea, meanwhile, the continental title would no doubt do just fine for now.