Africa Cup of Nations 2035 Open Thread
Ivory Coast Squad Review; Tournament Preview.
You may have noticed that my post titles usually have a theme of some sort…often something that might not make sense. (Although I maintain that Antoine Griezmann looks like George Michael and you’ll never convince me otherwise…)
With the Netherlands-focused threads on 2032 Euros and 2034 World Cup, I used the literal English translations of brilliantly-bizarre Dutch idioms.
With the Ivory Coast, I’ve started pulling from some of my favorite African proverbs, the above proverb being rather fitting as we approach my first major tournament in charge of the Ivory Coast, for which I’ve continued my policy of selecting young, promising players with room to grow instead of facially-comparable, older players. The goal being, build this side up for World Cups in 3 and 7 years.
I also just have to say again, how much I love managing in Africa. My daughter is Congolese, and there’s just something pure and joyful for me about managing African club and international sides in FM.
Since we’re approaching my first major international tournament with Les Elephants, though, I need to introduce you to the squad.
We are playing PM Haaienbek, the Nagelsmann-inspired tactical setup that was born out of a collaboration with Guido, detailed here: Live Every Week Like It’s Shark Week.
A position where I’m honestly frustrated…for now. Napoli’s Guy Kouadio is our starter, backed up by Oostende’s Hamed Kone and Issia Wazi’s Franck Gouamene. Gouamene at least has tons of potential, if he can meet it. Barring the emergence of someone new, this will be our goalkeeping trio for the 2038 World Cup in South Africa. I don’t think that Kouadio and Kone are good enough, so Gouamene will have to carry the burden of expectations going forward.
(Yes, you read that correctly. The World Cup is coming back to Africa, although it is way too early to tell if this Ivorian side will be able to compete. My initial belief is that we’re more likely to be truly competitive in 2042.)
The 1st XI sees Liverpool’s Aime Gramboute as our libero, with Angers’ Moussa Keita and Schalke’s Karamoko Fofana as the ball-playing centerbacks, and Atalanta’s Moustapha Kouyate and Tottenham’s Ange Diallo as our wingbacks.
We’ve got a fair amount of depth and potential here. The biggest question mark for me is whether the youth will develop, and when Gramboute and Kouyate will begin to decline.
In the 1st XI, our roaming playmaker is IFER’s Adama Traore. (I cannot say enough how much I love him, and want to bring him to Partizan…the limits on foreign players is killing me.) His backup is Gladbach’s Bellem Trazie, who is solid but never seems to have met the potential I thought he had, when I brought him to Germany.
Our 1st XI mezzalas are Stade Reims’ Amara Kone and Saint-Etienne’s Serge Diallo. They’re both young and promising, and we’re lacking experienced, quality central midfielders…so they’re in the side. Their backups are Partizan’s Fabrice Kouao and ASEC Mimosa’s Youssouf Meite, two extremely promising youngsters.
Let’s be honest. This group has potential. But that is all they are right now. Potential. In order for us to have any chance in 2038, this group needs to make good on their potential and turn into the elite footballers they could be.
Up top, our two shadow strikers will be Getafe’s Moussa Kore and PSG’s Orlande Kante. Kore seems to be a steady, reliable performer…Kante is frustrating beyond belief. So much potential, but he can’t get into PSG’s squad and endured a disappointing loan spell with Chelsea to end the 2034/35 season.
The backups are Lyons Eric Camara and ASEC Mimosa’s Didier Kone. Kone is on his way to Partizan at the end of July, and I’m very excited about him — he’ll start in our 2nd XI and hopefully push Kore and Kante for a spot in 2038. Camara…ugh. I just don’t think he’s good enough. He’s only in the side because we need some depth up top.
This squad is really, really young. All things being equal, I went for potential over experience. I’m hoping that doesn’t come back to haunt me for the Africa Cup of Nations, because I really can’t wait to see this group develop, and hit the World Cup in 3 years’ time.
More to the point, my concerns stem from the fact that the FA is expecting us to win the lot, so I could very quickly find myself out of a job if the youth don’t show up to play.
Group Stage, Matchday 1 – Senegal.
Zlatan clearly had his hexes backwards for the first match, as we concede a penalty in the 3rd minute and have to fight back to earn a draw.
I’m truly beginning to dislike Orlande Kante, who showed up at the team hotel after Zlatan read him the riot act after he was substituted off, driving a hot pink Jaguar with a color-coordinated cowboy hat and shades. I can’t think of a good performance that he’s had for Les Elephants. He needs to start performing.
Group Stage, Matchday 2 – Liberia, pre-match build-up.
Orlande came back to the hotel late, having been AWOL for several hours after our draw with Senegal.
I tasked Zlatan with setting him straight. No more of this.
“I don’t care how you do it. But this ends, here and now.”
Zlatan nods, deadly serious. “The Zlatan will take care of it, Boss.”
From that point on, I didn’t hear an ounce of trouble out of Orlande. For days, he and Zlatan were joined at the hip, even if I could detect a wild look in Orlande’s eyes whenever Zlatan spoke to him…all was well. And Orlande finished off our final training session on a high, the best I’ve seen him yet.
In the build-up to the Liberia match, I was pleased to learn that Orlande had joined Zlatan during his late-night trip to “assess” the state of the pitch. We’re at a point where we all know Zlatan is up to something. I just don’t want to know what it is, as I’m certain it is likely to cause an international incident if it ever got out.
15 minutes before kickoff, though, I can tell that something is awry. Zlatan and Orlande are in the back of the locker room, engaged in an animated discussion with hushed voices.
Enough is enough. Time for me to put my foot down.
“Hey, knock that **** off, lads. It’s almost time to get out there.”
Neither Zlatan nor Orlande will meet my eye. Peeking out from beneath a few boxes, I spy one of Zlatan’s glass jars.
“What’s going on back here? Are you… Are you finally ready to put all of this nonsense behind you, son?”
Orlande mumbles something incoherent. Zlatan interjects.
“You will speak when spoken to, Orlande, or the Zlatan will have no choice but to explain.”
Orlande tries again, still mumbling but coherent. “I just wanted a drink, Boss…water.”
“Was the Zlatan not clear? Water is for the after game. Before the game, only drink from the Zlatan’s Golden Fountain.”
Orlande looks to me, pleading. “But I don’t want to drink from the Golden Fountain, Boss.”
He seems to think that I know what he’s talking about. Truth be told, I haven’t the foggiest idea.
I look at Zlatan. He just arches his eyebrow, nodding to me, looking for support.
I look down at the glass jar, and back to Zlatan. Zlatan nods, eager to see that I’ve made the connection. The horrible, horrible connection.
“Zlatan…the Golden Fountain…is that what you’ve been sneaking into stadiums… All of the asparagus? I… This can’t…”
“Yes, Boss. The Zlatan is very particular about the color of the Golden Fountain. Ivorian shaman explain to the Zlatan, the colors. If the Golden Fountain is proper butterscotch color, and the Zlatan anoints the goalposts with Fountain the night before the game, we have good luck and many sexy times because the Gods know that the Zlatan is lion. But if the Zlatan does not get the color right, if color more ‘dijon’ or ‘Tuscan sun,’ then is very bad luck, the Fountain. No sexy times.”
In all fairness, that….answers a lot of questions. But not the biggest one.
“I don’t… I don’t want to hear about your superstitions, Zlatan. Did you make him drink…from the Golden Fountain? Yes or no.”
“No, Boss. The Orlande was a cheeky little bugger and grabbed the Zlatan’s waterbottle yesterday, which the Zlatan was using to collect the Fountaining during training, and…well, you saw how the Orlande played at the end of the training. Much lion. Very Zlatan.”
Zlatan does have a point. Orlande was on another level yesterday.
I don’t finish the thought, as I can see Zlatan nodding enthusiastically.
Orlande burps, a fetid stench wafting from his mouth.
I can smell the asparagus as if I’d eaten it myself.
“It is ok, gaffer,” Orlande says, sounding stronger than he had a few moments earlier. “I can play today.”
Group Stage, Matchday 2 – Liberia.
Throughout the entire match, I kept waiting for a sign — a signal, anything — to tell me that what my eyes were witnesses wasn’t true.
With each passing minute, Zlatan’s eyes grew bigger. His smile, broader. His laugh, louder.
For this was the best game we’ve seen young Orlande play. Only 1 goal and 1 assist, but his link-up play was extraordinary. No more sauntering about the pitch, like a latter-day Neymar thinking about a weekend visit to Brazil for his sister’s birthday. No, Orlande strode the pitch like a young Ronaldo. Equal parts ambition and menace.
Although I shudder to think the price that must be paid.
I gave both Orlande and Zlatan after the match. From a distance I can see them toasting their success with what to the casual onlooker appeared to be a slightly off-color Mountain Dew.
But I know better. That is not Mountain Dew.
It is Zlatan’s Golden Fountain.
Group Stage, Matchday 3 – Sudan.
Our passage through to the Second Round all but secure, we decide to give the 1st XI a day off. Zlatan spends all 90 minutes eating asparagus and guzzling prodigious quantities of water.
I tell myself that none of this — and none of what will inevitably happen — is my fault.
But it probably is. At least in an existential, cosmic sense.
We smash the Sudanese, 5-1. We will face Morocco in the Second Round.
Second Round – Morocco.
Zlatan is over the moon. All of his “hard work.”
I don’t want to burst his bubble. And if it means that Kante puts in man-of-the-match performances like this, who am I to complain?
Quarterfinals – Congo.
Let’s be honest. This is the type of approach we can expect to see as the Ivory Coast — 10 men stacked behind the ball, with a cautious or defensive mentality. We just need to find a way through. Fortunately, we did against Congo.
We will face Senegal in the semifinals, a rematch of our Group Stage (Matchday 1) draw.
DR Congo will face South Africa in the other semifinal:
Stepping back for a moment, my plans to raid the Ivorians for youth players (Franck Gouamene, Adama Traore and Youssouf Meite, in particular) have fallen apart.
We have 5 “foreign” players in the Partizan 1st team squad as it is (only 4 are allowed), with a 6th (Didier Kone) due to arrive at the end of July.
Of those 6, Razak Godwin in the limbo that is the “awaiting paperwork” stage of nationalization; Emmanuel Ibrahim will hit that stage in 38 days. That period can drag on forever.
So, we weren’t really in a position to bring Gouamene, Traore or Meite on board when the transfer window opened, much less give them meaningful playing time. Traore has now signed for Standard. Meite has joined Oostende. Lyon and Milan have made offers for Gouamene, with Atalanta also circling. It just goes to show how the right combination of club/nation can make a big difference when managing a non-EU nation.
Semifinals – Senegal.
We knew Senegal would be a match that we could not look past, focusing on the final, but several players had to rest. And it is a good thing that we did rotate, because they would not have lasted 120 minutes, no matter what Zlatan was giving them.
It wasn’t pretty. And we were far from clinical in front of goal.
In the end, Guy Kouadio saved two penalties to keep the dream of a third Cup of Nations title alive, following up on the Ivorians’ third-place finish in 2033.
We’re through to the Final, where we’ll face DR Congo after their 2-1 win over South Africa.
We have to catch a quick flight to Belgrade, however, because Partizan kick-off our Super Liga calendar less than 24 hours later, with a Champions League qualifier away to IFK Goteborg 4 days later.
Final – DR Congo.
Zlatan was adamant that DR Congo would regret omitting Doctor Congo from their Cup of Nations squad. Up to now, it was hard to argue that the Congolese were missing their favorite corporo-human/midfielder.
But no longer. Reduced to 10 men early after a professional foul by Gramboute, our backs were against the wall. The Liverpool man, reduced to tears. But the lads pulled together and took the fight to the Congolese. A 26th-minute masterclass from Moussa Kone, followed by an unfortunate own goal from Pepe Bonet, as Fabrice Kouao’s thunderbastard from distance rebounded off the post, hit Bonet’s back and rolled into the back of the net.
2-nil. Champions of Africa.
No wonder the hashtag #10MenSoWhat is trending.
Les Elephants are on the march…but there’s no rest for the wicked. Zlatan and I are off to the airport, the Partizan lads being given a few days to make their way back to Belgrade.
If you’ve stumbled upon this post and are finding yourself a bit confused… Don’t worry. The basic concept behind the Nearly Men save is explained here. Just need to catch up? Each installment in Nicolaj Bur’s story can be accessed through the Nearly Men Archive.
And if you just can’t get enough…join us for The Ballad of Toothless Bob, a series that explores the world of Nicolaj Bur, away from the pitch. What is Project Arcturus? What lies beyond the twisted redstone door, deep in the bowels of the Santiago Bernabéu?