Two years on from the Cabinda tragedy that rocked African football, Togo's national team are determined to write a new chapter in their history. Thrown into disarray after the shooting in Angola and the subsequent withdrawal from the 2010 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, the Hawks have struggled to find their flying wings. Since January of 2010, the Togolese have won just two of 15 international matches, and they finished 11 points off the pace in qualifying for the AFCON 2012.
When former French international Didier Six was appointed coach of the side ahead of the two-legged 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifier against Guinea-Bissau at the end of last year, it was considered an ideal time to start fresh. “Cabinda will always remain a black mark on Togolese football. After that, players were caught in a negative spiral, a vicious circle,” said Six, who was a mainstay for France at the 1978 and 1982 FIFA World Cup finals. “But I feel like those two games against Guinea-Bissau really helped us turn a page.”
One effect of Six taking up the reins was the comeback of talisman Emmanuel Adebayor, who had retired from international football in the wake of Cabinda. The top scorer in Togo’s history, Adebayor returned for the second leg against Guinea-Bissau, a decisive 1-0 win in Lome. It’s not clear how big of a part the England-based striker will play in the side going forward, which does not seem an undue worry for Six. “We will always hope Emmanuel Adebayor is among us, but we also have to learn to do without him,” he said. “Togo has other quality players. We will select them, trust them and give them the possibility to achieve things as a team.”
I think all of the teams are quite close, and eventually, the best organised team will qualify.
Six, who played professionally throughout France and Europe over his 20-year career, has said he knew the teenaged Adebayor over a decade ago at Metz and that he has a good relationship with him. But he is adamant that Togo’s struggles go beyond the return of ‘Manu’. “We must be ready with what we have available and not worry too much about any single player,” he said. “We are building a balanced team, which does not depend on one player being present or not.”
In six months on the job, the Frenchman believes he has found a quality core to build his ambitious plans around. “I can count on a very good group,” said Six. “These players are reliable, they stand by each other and they are ambitious. They want to achieve something good together.” To further explain his project, Six references his Spain 1982 team-mate Alain Giresse, who led a period of development in Gabon as coach before taking over Mali in 2010. “Look at how Giresse is still appreciated in Gabon. Our generation, we have this ambition, to build things from the ground up, although we know that results are a necessary condition to work on the long term.”
Hope springs from Zambia success
This emphasis on constructing for the future fits nicely with the achievements of recent surprise continental champions Zambia, who are rightly serving as inspiration for a whole host of mid-size African nations. "You saw with Zambia what team spirit can bring," said Six. It was also a sentiment echoed by one of the new faces in the Togo side, 21-year-old midfielder Prince Segbefia of Auxerre. "We intend to build a team for the long run, and we have to take Zambia as a model. Let us just hope we will be given time enough to succeed,” he said.
That time will only come with the right results. The first test for the team will be to get the Brazil 2014 qualifying group stage off to a good start at the beginning of June when they host Libya and then travel to Congo DR. Just a week later, Togo will attempt to overturn a 2-1 first-leg deficit to Kenya in 2013 continental qualifiers. “We have three important games to play in June,” said Six. “We have to play the return against Kenya, but also two games of the World Cup qualifiers. Our group is quite difficult, as our opponents are Cameroon, Claude Le Roy’s Congo DR and Libya, who were at the AFCON 2012. But I think all of the teams are quite close, and eventually, the best organised team will qualify.”
Whether a second appearance at the FIFA World Cup comes off for the Germany 2006 veterans, Togo know that a win over Kenya will put them just one step away from a return to the continental finals in South Africa next year. “We lost one game in Nairobi, but I feel confident we can advance in Lome with the support from our fans. We do not want to disappoint them," said Alaixys Romao, midfielder and 'survivor' of the 2006 high point. A return to a major international event would help the Hawks get a taste of fresher air.