After reaching the quarter-finals of three CAF Africa Cup of Nations on the trot, Guinea suffered a dreadful preliminary campaign for the 2010 edition of the tournament. One win from six qualifying matches cost coach Robert Nouzaret his job and had the country questioning the direction of its national team. However, beginning the 2012 preliminaries with two wins from two, including one over 2010 FIFA World Cup™ participants Nigeria, have ensured that the Syli National are again the toast of capital city Conakry.
The return of former coach Michel Dussuyer has been credited for the turnaround, with the Frenchman’s knowledge of Guinean football seen as key to the team's early success. Dussuyer was in charge of the one-time African finalists six years ago when they began their run of continental consistency, and he has shown faith in an exciting and ambitious younger generation, a group embodied by 23-year-old Kevin Constant. The midfielder plays in Serie A for Chievo Verona, and it was his goal - his first for Guinea - that secured a 1-0 win over the Super Eagles last month.
“We have already closed the chapter on the 2010 Cup of Nations, which we missed. Now, the coach is rebuilding the team with a focus on the young players,” Constant told African Football Media recently. “The Nigerians controlled the ball, but we defended well and opted to counter-attack. It was a difficult game, but we knew we would have to work hard. Such results help to put Guinea back on the map. There were huge expectations from our fans, since we have not played well since 2008. And for the new players, it was the best opportunity to show how gifted and skilful they are.”
Changing of the guard
Guinea have a notable history of using French-born players, and Constant is not a Guinean name. His mother and grandfather were born in the west African country, but most of his career as a youth player was spent in a France jersey. However, he overcame his initial hesitations about playing for Guinea and both Nouzaret and previous coach Patrice Neveu called him to join the squad. He just missed the chance of playing in the 2008 Cup of Nations, but watched as the team were soundly beaten by Côte d’Ivoire 5-0 in the last eight. As he explains, the side has gone through a lot since then.
“The team has changed so much. There is now a new generation,” Constant explained when asked about the decreasing role for previous icons like Pascal Feindouno and Ismael Bangoura. “Some veterans remain, and the atmosphere between them and us is excellent. The coach is European, he brings us his rigorous mentality, and he knows Guinea well since he was the coach before.”
Guinea can still call on experienced players like Kamil Zayatte, the team's new captain who plays in England for Hull City, as well as the likes of Fode Mansare, Oumar Kalabane and Alimou Diallo. And Constant points to the importance of stability in one particular part of the pitch. “We didn't change our defence that much actually” he said. “For instance, goalkeeper Nabi Yattara has always been in the group, and he was just waiting for his turn to become the No1. We have experienced players at the back, which is an advantage when you play teams like Nigeria.”
Eyes on 2012 and beyond
Guinea's victory over Nigeria certainly gave supporters something to get excited about, but Constant and his team are focusing on the work to be done before they can claim a ticket to the co-hosted 2012 finals in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Ambition is one of Constant's trademarks, and his appetite for success brings a needed edge to his national team. Guinea have experience at both the FIFA U-17 and U-20 World Cups and finished fourth at the U-17s in 1985, but they are still waiting to make the leap to the senior showpiece.
With nations like Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Ghana emerging on the international stage, and Togo and Angola reaching the FIFA World Cup in recent years, Guineans believe that their team, which has never been short on talent, has not lived up to its considerable potential. It is now 34 years since Guinea reached their only continental final, and Constant says the cycle is due to come around again.
“We missed Angola, and we promised ourselves that we'd be there in 2012,” said Constant. “But our ultimate ambition, the ultimate goal, is the World Cup in 2014. To me, it is a priority. Of course, Guinea have never made it as a senior side. I am already sure that we can make the Cup of Nations, and if the team can grow up quickly and get good results, why not? We are young, we are talented, and we have plenty of time to build a winning team.”
He is equally bullish about his club career. After breaking through with Toulouse, he honed his skills for Chateauroux in Ligue 2 before being linked with a move to multiple Premier League and Serie A clubs. He moved to Chievo on a loan with an option to buy at the end of this season, and the experience he has gained in Italy has been put to good use at international level. “We work a lot tactically in Italy, so when I am back with Guinea, I always bring some ideas to the coach. If it can help us progress, why not do everything I can?"