Togo thwarted by in-fighting
Having suffered three defeats in as many games, Togo said farewell to Germany as the bottom team in Group G. But while their billing as minnows on the global stage meant they were always facing an uphill struggle, off-field issues appear to have done the real damage.
Fifty-one minutes into their first FIFA World Cup campaign, the Togolese held a 1-0 lead over Korea Republic thanks to Mohamed Kader's accomplished strike. It was a start loaded with promise, but a red card for Jean-Paul Abalo spelt disaster and the Taeguk Warriors were able to level the scores immediately.
Suddenly, Togo were spiralling ominously towards defeat, a pattern that continued in their next two games as they conceded five times without reply. But however sad that turnaround in fortunes was for Sparrowhawks fans, the hierarchy of world football had unquestionably been respected.
Relive Togo's tournament
The West African nation simply does not possess the same talent pool as their rivals, yet they were far from ridiculed on the pitch. Indeed, no one should underestimate the importance of their captain's dismissal against the Koreans, who netted from the resultant free-kick and made their numerical advantage count as the clock ticked down.
In Togo's second outing , it was the efficient finishing of the Swiss that finally made the difference, despite Kossi Agassa's heroics between the posts. And the back four held out admirably before eventually cracking under relentless French pressure during their final fixture , although their forwards did fail to create any real danger.
Without doubt, the major reason for this disappointing performance was friction within the camp. Already in February this year, their catastrophic CAF African Cup of Nations bid had been derailed by bitter in-fighting between star striker Emmanuel Adebayor and coach Stephen Keshi, who consequently lost his job to Otto Pfister three months later.
In many ways that set the tone for Germany 2006, where the fractious question of bonuses bubbled to the surface at the worst possible time. Then, on the day of the opening game, Pfister announced his resignation in solidarity with his players, who responded by refusing to train or follow instructions.
A list of possible replacements did the rounds, but Pfister eventually retook the reins and his charges swallowed their pride on the bonus issue. The seeds had been sown, however, as forward Moustapha Salifou was keen to attest: "Perhaps we could have done better without all the off-field problems."
In response to the saga, FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter has promised that the governing body of world football will inspect the Togo case very closely.
The fans back home will be intrigued to hear what happens, but for now they can be rightfully proud of their heroes. In particular, Agassa performed miracles on German soil, frustrating Switzerland time and again and suffocating French dreams of progress until the 55th minute. Up front, Kader created a number of chances for himself and wrote his name in the history books as Togo's first ever goalscorer at the FIFA World Cup. Less positive were the displays from Adebayor, who even found himself pulled out of the action during the second half of the France game.
As a general rule, though, it was not so much the Sparrowhawks' tactics or play that was exposed as their lack of discipline and cohesion, not to mention their inexperience at the highest level. Pfister admitted as much when he declared his side were here to learn in the aftermath of their loss to Switzerland.
The German's position as head coach will no doubt be up for discussion now, as will the international futures of some of the team's stalwarts. The latter appear likely to survive, if their recent comments are anything to go by.
"It was a great tournament and the atmosphere was superb," said Adebayor. "It's a shame for us to get knocked out so early but we have a young team and we learnt a lot here." Likewise, Agassa seems prepared for the long haul: "This competition was a superb experience for every one of us. We played well, but that's not enough at this level."
For Agassa and Co, the next big challenge will be the Cup of Nations in Ghana in 2008. The qualifiers get under way in October this year, with a crunch game against Benin first up on the agenda and the ideal occasion for Togo to get back to winning ways.