Barry following in very big footsteps
The last time Côte d’Ivoire won the CAF Africa Cup of Nations was in 1992 when the Elephants beat Ghana's Black Stars in a historic final that saw - for the first time-ever in a major final - all 11 players having to take a spot-kick in a penalty shoot-out.
It was only the 12th kick that separated the two teams and in a fitting finale, it was Ivorian goalkeeper Alain Gouamene who had the last touch of the ball as he dived to save Anthony Baffoe's penalty. It's fitting this week because the Raja Casablanca custodian played a fantastic tournament throughout and went all five matches that his side played without conceding a single goal. He was also the match-winner in Côte d’Ivoire's penalty shoot-out win against Cameroon in the semi-final, when he saved three of the four Cameroonian spot-kicks he faced.
Fast forward to the 28th edition of the ongoing Cup of Nations being played in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and another Ivorian goalkeeper is a step away from helping his side emulate Gouamene's exploits. The Elephants sailed through the group stage, beating Sudan, Angola and Burkina Faso, before ousting co-hosts Equatorial Guinea in the quarter-final and then ending Mali's dream of a final place in the semi-finals. In the five matches, the west Africans have scored ten goals, without conceding one.
Man between the poles
Boubacar Barry is the man in net for the Elephants at this tournament and although he was rested for his side's final group game against Angola - with the Elephants having already made sure of their place in the last eight ahead of that match - he has been in outstanding form for his side and has played a large part in ensuring that they have kept a clean sheet throughout the tournament.
If the 32-year-old, who plays his club football in Belgium for Lokeren, keeps the Zambian strikers at bay for the full 90 minutes of Sunday's final, he will have helped the side equal Gouamene's record of 540 minutes - in 1992 they played just five games but all three knock-out matches went to extra time - without conceding a goal. It is something that he has not been thinking about, even admitting that he was not aware of that fact. "Oh, I did not know that!” he said after the semi-final. “I did not know Côte d’Ivoire already had similar results, with only clean sheets. I think it is a good sign for us. I am happy that I have managed not to be beaten in my matches."
Barry, who was a member of the Ivorian squad at the last four Africa Cup of Nations, as well as the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cups™, was criticized after the Elephant's lost 3-2 to Algeria in Angola two years ago. "I knew I had to be patient. Compared to high-level players playing in big Leagues, I play in a smaller league,” he admitted. “But I always tried to keep a smile on my face. The time is running out, so you have to learn from your failures to improve."
The goalkeeper, who has spent the last nine years playing in Belgium, fasts before every game, taking only juices and water at dusk. "It is important for me. Before each game, I fast as it purifies me and makes me even stronger,” he said. “It’s a personal decision, from a personal conviction, that I want to stay concentrated on the tournament. You need grace from above, and not just talent and preparation to win."
Barry says that he is aware that even if they go into Sunday's final against the Chipolopolo as favourites, it will not be an easy game. "We know it is going to be difficult till the end. We came here to play six finals, we already won the first five of them. There is still one stage. Now we are going to enjoy these moments, it is a great satisfaction to make it to the great final. And we are going to prepare for this game the best we can, like we did for the previous ones."
Victory in the Stade de l'Amitié on Sunday will not only give the Elephants their second CAN trophy, it could also give the side six clean sheets in a row, which runs counter to the attacking reputation of the orange-clad side, with Barry playing a vital role in achieving that.