2031/32 Open Thread
June/July 2031 – Squad Review.
Following last year’s frustrating results in Africa, I’ve decided to lean into the strength of our attack, doubling down on the notion that “the best defense is a good offense.”
Translation? We’re going to pivot, tactically.
The thought being: we have an abundance of young, attack-minded players. And, generally speaking, the Ivory Coast has an abundance of young, attack-minded players. So, let’s stop being so defensive in our setup… As if PM Haaienvuist is “defensive.”
Since my arrival, we’ve had PM Draugr as our second tactic. We simply haven’t played it. Until now.
The first match is a friendly against Academie JMG — one we should — and do — win, handily. 5-nil.
Last year, Dominique Sekana took over in the 1st XI for Big Papy Dabo. In short order, Big Papy requested a transfer, which I readily agreed to — I’d rather not use one of my 6 foreign player spots for a reserve goalkeeper. It’s as simple as that.
Since Big Papy is on the verge of leaving, we will rely on Romeo Diakite as our backup. I once had high hopes for Diakite, but he just isn’t going to be good enough. Signing a talented Ivorian keeper is a priority.
Our centerback pairing is Ifeanyi Johnson and Drissa Kamagate — two long-term starters who don’t look to be displaced any time soon. Ibrahima Mendy plays from the bench, and pairs with Drissa Cauphie in the 2nd XI. This is an area where we could improve, I believe — in depth, if not strength.
At right wingback, Lamine Diallo is our starter, with Elysee Catena in the 2nd XI. Not an area of weakness, per se, but an area where I feel we can improve. I intend to sign a right-footed winger who can retrain, to ensure that our right flank is as devastating in possession as it can and should be.
Left wingback has been similarly frustrating. The transition to PM Draugr, however, means that a new era is in play. New signing Habib Aguie (an ASEC academy graduate, who spent last year on loan at AFAD and joined on a free) will play as the inverted left wingback in our 1st XI — he was going to play as a mezzala, but will put those natural attacking skills to use from deeper. August Ouedraogo (a natural left-footer) will play from the bench, and with our 2nd XI. Serge Kouassi will be sold or loaned out.
Previously, we deployed a 5-man midfield consisting of a deep-lying roaming playmaker tucked behind 2 mezzalas, with 2 shadow strikers up top. In terms of the personnel (and player profiles), the shift to PM Draugr means that we essentially push the RPM into the ball-winning midfield slot, with one of the mezzalas pushing higher and the shadow strikers splitting wide. It makes sense in my head.
Our starting midfield pairing will be Mohamed Diack (a brilliant mezzala, who is currently ticked off because I rejected a transfer offer from ES Tunis) with Abou Houssou (ball-winning midfielder). Oumar Kossounou (who joined on a free from Sol FC) will provide coverage from the bench, and pair with Aziz Romaric in the 2nd XI.
Kossounou is probably too good to play from the bench — I’m genuinely excited about his arrival — but the reality is that Diack and Houssou are better.
Romaric is a youth academy graduate who, at 5’9″ was never going to make it as a centerback. I’ve been retraining him to play as a roaming playmaker, but have shifted focus to deploying him as a ball-winning midfielder, which is a natural fit for his profile. (Truth be told, I considered retraining him as an inverted left wingback, but this is a better fit.)
Turning to those players who will lead our attack, I will admit had some consternation about changing tactics due to Karamoko Sylla‘s obvious dominance as a shadow striker. But, keeping in my the effectiveness of inverted wingers in this setup…and the skill-set of our third and final off-season signing, I am comfortable pushing him to the left flank.
Centrally, Kouassi Kangoute will serve as our advanced playmaker. He joins on a free from SC Gagnoa, and was originally slotted to play as a mezzala. The change in tactic suits him, though. (I had also considered deploying Kossounou as an advanced playmaker, but he doesn’t have the pace to play up top in our system.)
Hamed N’Guessan will start as our inverted winger on the right flank. Frankly, he’s a bit of a fish out of water in our new system, as I would prefer a left-footed player. He should still produce, but it is a concern.
Kader Akassou will play from the bench with our 2nd XI — he is a truly exciting prospect, who claimed 12 goals and 13 assists in 14 starts for our U21s last year.
We continue to slowly improve. Had we not changed tactics, I would have expected to use this year to build the squad to a point where we could truly challenge for the Champions League title in 2032/33.
Transitioning to a new tactic could put us back a year, if we suffer any growing pains in the process and/or certain players simply fail to perform in their new roles.
July 2031 – Champions League Draw.
We will face Malawian champions Tigers FC in the Preliminary Round, a favorable draw if ever there was one.
In the First Round, we will face the winner of the tie between Kenyan champions, Gor Mahia, and the Mauritian champions, Pamplemousses — a much more straightforward path to the Group Stage than we faced last year.
August 2031 – Champions League, Preliminary Round.
We’re scouting potential transfers, but nothing is feasible at this juncture. The players either aren’t good enough, aren’t interested, or are beyond our $244k transfer budget. That’s what I get for convincing the Board to invest all that money in our facilities, yeah?
The bookies continue to give us more credit with each passing year, and consider us to be second-favorites for the title, with 4 players named in the media Dream XI.
The first leg against Tigers is straightforward, to say the least. Debutante Kangoute claimed 4 goals in the first half en route to a 6-nil win — in which we had 4 goals chalked off by VAR.
The domestic campaign kicks off with the Coupe Houphouët-Boigny, pitting us against WAC. We’re missing 8 senior players (including 6 starters), and our finishing is woeful. Nevertheless, we claim a 3-1 win to secure the first silverware of the year.
We are still missing players for the 2nd leg away to Tigers, but run out 6-nil winners on the night, 11-nil on aggregate. We will face Gor Mahia, who escaped with a 5-3 aggregate win over Pamplemousses.
September 2031 – Champions League, First Round.
The first leg in Nairobi. We need to banish the ghosts of last year’s African campaigns. An emphatic, insurmountable lead has to be our target. Nothing less will suffice.
We cannot leave any room for our own doubts to insidiously creep in, uninvited.
We dominate even if our finishing is poor. A 3-nil win should do the trick. Shouldn’t it?
My fears are all for naught. We are, once again, in complete control. 4-nil on the night, 7-nil on aggregate.
October 2031 – Champions League, Group Stage Draw.
Another crushing moment of doubt. Fear that the draw will sink us before the first ball is kicked in anger.
Yet, after we are drawn first out of the hat in Group C, Moroccan runners-up CAY Berrechid join us.
Then? Kaizer Chiefs. ****.
Last out of the hat will either be the Angolan runners-up Petro Atletico or giants ES Tunis — the four-time defending Tunisian champions who also won Champions League in 2025, 2026 and 2031.
I’ve never been so happy to learn that I’ll be traveling to Luanda.
When it rains, it pours. With 8 players called up for the U23 Cup of Nations, the cupboard is bare for nearly 4 weeks, beginning in late October. Despite missing 7 starters, we hold our own during this period, including in a 1-nil Cup loss to ASEC that we finished with only 8 men, after Kossounou saw red and two players had to leave with injuries.
The other big news? Halfway through the month, the Ivorian FA finally saw fit to sack their manager after failure to qualify for both the 2030 World Cup and the 2031 Cup of Nations was followed by elimination at the hands of South Africa in the second round of qualifying — in other words, before the Group Stage itself had even commenced.
Let’s be blunt. Les Elephants are an absolute shambles. Failing to qualify for two consecutive World Cups and the Cup of Nations in between is beyond unacceptable. The next task at hand is qualifying for the Cup of Nations, with our first match scheduled for March 2032.
Amad Diallo is easily our best player, and perfectly suited to PM Draugr. Romeo Dago is no slouch, either. Bassalia Coulibaly is another delightfully intriguing player, even if he might be something of a square peg in a round hole in our tactics.
In the furor surrounding my appointment, we take our eyes off the ball. CAY Berrechid execute a smash-and-grab job to inflict a 3-1 loss on us, at the Champers. We were the better team. We have no excuses. And now, we find ourselves in a hole.
We will have a relatively quiet January due to the African Nations Championship, for which Willy has seen fit to call up 11 players from our first team squad. The good news being that we appear to be stocked with incoming young talent and have invested yet again in our junior coaching to ensure that the kids are as ready as can possibly be.
With so many players away for the African Nations Championship (won by the Ivorian B team), perhaps it is a good thing January is so quiet since we are left with only 12 senior players at the club.
And as my thoughts turn towards the Cup of Nations qualifiers against Sao Tome & Principe and Libya in March — our first match in charge of Les Elephants — I cannot help but think of the Ivorian squad. We have talent in spades. But…who will serve as our libero? Our inverted left wingback? Do we have the personnel to play PM Draugr, or should we deploy PM Haaienvuist? Since both tactics utilize specialized roles, I am inclined to utilize the same primary tactic with both club and country, which may mean a reversion to PM Haaienvuist on the club side.[In all candor, while PM Draugr is an absolute joy to play, I personally believe PM Haaienvuist is a more effective tactic.]
All of this thinking is getting me nowhere. And we have Champions League matches on the docket. Passage to the quarterfinals is secured through the one-two punch of a 2-nil win over Kaizer Chiefs and a 3-nil win in Luanda.
The business end of the season is almost upon us. The time for thinking has passed.
There’s nothing quite like taking all 3 points from a six-pointer away to your biggest rivals with title implications. Granted, we tried to hand ASEC the match. We truly did. But the lads held firm even after we were reduced to 10 men, to claim a 2-1 win.
We welcome Aguie back to the XI for the dead rubber against Kaizer Chiefs, deploying our 1st XI despite the relatively meaningless nature of the match itself. Why? While our progression has been secured, we have a chance to knock the South Africans out of the tournament.
Sylla finds the back of the net in the 10th minute, only for VAR to chalk it off. In that moment, his frustration lays bare the simple fact that this has not been his year. While he leads the team with 20 goals, his effectiveness has been blunted — in and of itself a reason to arguably revert to our prior tactical setup.
My mind wanders, lost in a tactical maze of my own making. But by the half it is clear that our approach isn’t working today. Other than Sylla’s disallowed goal, we’ve done nothing. We’ve created nothing.
Which leads to a spur of the moment decision. We revert to PM Haaienvuist for the second half. Of course, it is not the answer to our problems on the night, or our immediate salvation — we concede twice, losing 2-nil — but we do claw our way back into the match. Kaizer Chiefs are nevertheless eliminated.
We draw defending champions ES Tunis in the quarterfinals. A big test, to say the least.
Before our next match kicks off, my mind still struggling with the decision to stick or twist, Abdul is back in my office to discuss this year’s youth academy graduates. Kevin Kouassi and Chris Akassou have the potential to be solid mezzalas. I am less sure of Richard Kouakou-Silue, the next-best player in the class.
Immediately following Abdul’s visit, Karamoko Sylla shows up to complain that we’ve blocked a transfer to Al-Wahda (although I am befuddled as to why I felt it necessary to send myself an email regarding this matter…that’ll teach me to mix Ambien and Buckfast…). This is a day I have long feared would arrive. Karamoko has realized he’s too good to be playing for us, and regrets signing a new contract last year.
In truth, part of me is hoping is that a vein of goalscoring form (and an international debut) will help Sylla settle. The other part of me recognizes that his departure is inevitable, and we need to capitalize on his presence while we can.
The Board seems to recognize the need to plan for the future, agreeing to invest in our youth recruitment.
My Ivorian debut is in a less than glamorous setting. But after their recent, high-profile failures, we’ll take it quietly.
I’ve selected 4 Africa Sports players for our first qualifying matches — Kamagate, who may be the best pure Ivorian defender playing today; Sekana, who will likely take over in goal, replacing Orlando Pirates’ Arnaud Traore; Aguie, who I envision as Les Elephants’ long-term libero even if his retraining has only just begun; and Sylla, who is more than good enough to make the leap to European football.
I firmly believe that these 4 players have been criminally underrated by the prior national team management…which may explain why they currently find themselves unemployed.
Our best players appear to be Bayern Munich’s Romeo Dago, Manchester United’s Amad Diallo, and Genoa’s Mory Bamba. Club Brugge’s Odilion Kossounou is a also force to be reckoned with, but his style of play does not suit our aggression in possession.
In Sao Tome, I name Sekana, Kamagate and Aguie to the 1st XI, with Sylla on the bench, to the muffled laughter of the huddled press. They can laugh all they want, these lads are here on merit. We start the match in complete control, with Amad Diallo scoring the first goal of my international management career.
We are running rampant even if Sekana‘s debut is spoiled by a world-class goal from our hosts. Sylla enters the fray just before the hour mark. He makes few waves as we run out 5-1 winners behind 4 goals from the irrepressible Diallo.
We’re in complete control back in Abidjan 72 hours later to face Libya, but are misfiring in front of goal. It falls to Aguie in the 63rd minute to give us the lead, rising to claim his first international goal — heading home a Guiagon corner. Dago hits a stunner to double our lead, before substitute Sylla opens his account in the 75th minute. 3-nil is a result we will take.
Predictably, Sylla‘s debut and first international goal raise his profile. The ****s at LA Galaxy are now interested in signing him, making an arrogant, desultory offer — one we reject out of hand.
April 2032 – Champions League, Quarterfinals.
Away for the first leg, we gift ES Tunis an early lead with an unfortunate deflection off of Zerbo, which is followed in short order by a ruthless finish from Perrone. Sylla nearly pulls one back in the 37th, smashing the post when well clear behind the lines, with the hosts managing to clear.
It is not good enough. That much is clear.
We start the second half in much better form, snatching a goal as N’Guessan caps a ruthless counterattack, assisted by Sylla. Diack hits the post mere minutes later, as ES Tunis are suddenly unsteady on their feet.
Though the tide has turned fully in our favor, we cannot find the equalizer…until Sylla slots home in the 81st.
It is a kick in the gut. But we are more than capable of overturning the tie back at the Champers.
The Champers is ready. A seething, roiling cauldron of sound and fury. We need a strong start, to claim the upper hand.
Sylla heads off the bar in the 1st minute…so close. But so far.
Scoreless at the half, we are staring elimination in the face. We come out for the second 45 with a steely determination — in the 52nd minute, N’Guessan hits the post from an oblique angle. The rebound falls to Diack who hammer it into the empty net. N’Guessan doubles our lead in the 64th, but VAR intervenes to deny us a more secure advantage.
ES Tunis do not threaten our goal seriously again, and we progress on away goals — 1-nil on the night, 3-3 on aggregate.
Basking in the afterglow of our progression, Sylla announces he no longer wishes to leave. The reality is that this was just the first chapter in what inevitably will be a drawn-out, ongoing transfer saga. There isn’t a chance I’m letting him go for less than his $5.75M release clause.
April/May 2032 – Champions League, Semifinals.
In Casablanca, we take an early lead against the run of play thanks to the dogged determination of Sylla, who rides multiple tackles and to fire past the onrushing goalkeeper. We spend the rest of the half hanging on to our increasingly-precarious lead, but reach halftime up 1 goal to the good.
We hold until the 64th, when Benamar claims a highlight-reel goal to draw our hosts level. As the game begins to open up, Sylla restores our lead in the 73rd, against the run of play. As Raja Casablanca look to press their advantage, we again strike in transition — Sylla playing Cedric Traore behind the line, to calmly fire into the side netting.
A 3-1 win is a massive result. But the job is not done.
Our supporters have been in similar situations before. They are confident yet wary. No one wants to speak of the past. Or to otherwise tempt fate. There is only one way to banish those ghosts — win.
A collective gasp and sigh of relief strike early, when Nejjary — the leading goalscorer in the Champions League and Raja Casablanca’s captain smashes the post, through clean on goal. But we manage to clear and reach halftime, scoreless.
The silence is deafening, however, when Nejjary buries one on the counter in the 64th minute. All of our doubts, our fears, rise to the surface…to be immediately replaced by sheer joy, as Diack collects the rebound from Sylla’s blocked shot, and fires into the roof of the net from 10 yards. An emphatic, vital strike which calms our nerves, even if it cannot eliminate them entirely.
Moments after a Nejjary header rattles the crossbar, we strike again — Aguie finding Cedric Traore, the substitutes striking what appears to be the decisive blow. We stand clear 5-2 on aggregate.
Much to their credit, Raja Casablanca refuse to concede defeat and push forward relentlessly. We punish them. Sylla claims our third with a deft, cheeky chip over their keeper.
The roar at the final whistle is epic. Back-to-back 3-1 wins, see us reach the final 6-2 on aggregate.
We will face Club Africain in their home stadium, a chance for them to claim glory in what would otherwise be considered a poor year, seeing as how they sit 3rd in the league.
May 2032 – Champions League, Final.
Club Africain are favored. No surprise. I would prefer to be the underdog. To be underestimated.
It is a momentous occasion. One for which we are ready.
Though the early momentum is in favor of the Tunisians, we strike first as they fail to clear a corner, allowing us to work the ball back inside while Sylla resets and makes a diagonal run into space behind their defensive line, collecting a pass from N’Guessan and smashing the ball into the back of the net.
In the 27th minute, N’Guessan doubles our lead after some beautiful interplay finds him in the box with a step on his marker.
Yet Club Africain are not done for yet, as Ivorian international Boubacar Bamba pulls one back almost immediately.
We maintain our narrow lead through the half. But this is anyone’s game.
Shortly after the hour mark, we prepare to make our first substitution — Houssou replacing Kossounou at roaming playmaker.
Abuie replaces Kangoute with just over 15 minutes to play. The game is starting to open up. Club Africain cannot afford to be patient. We cannot afford to be wasteful if given the chance to put them to the sword.
That chance comes in the 86th minute. Aguie takes it with both hands, heading home firmly from 8 yards out, the assist from Diack is a thing of beauty — a wildly unnecessary rabona, perfectly weighted to find Aguie.
Hubris, personified? Or simply a moment of sheer class?
That may depend on where you stand. Regardless, we lead 3-1 with less than 5 minutes to play in regular time.
Club African pour forward. And are rewarded in the 88th minute when a free kick whipped to the near post is headed home from close range, to make it 3-2, before pouncing on a loose ball in the 90th minute, to draw level.
3-3 at the final whistle. Extra time it is. Free football.
During which Sekana is our savior, snuffing out several attacks to keep the score level.
Heavy legs but willing hearts, we fight on. Sylla hits the post in the 115th minute, the keeper didn’t even react.
In the 118th minute, Club Africain take the lead after we exchange blows, carnage in the midfield.
We cannot find a way back into the match. The Tunisians are crowned champions at the final whistle.
May 2032 – Season Review.
The final 2 matches of the campaign are straightforward. Unremarkable. Immaterial.
After a Champions League final, you expect me to be interested in the Couple de la Ligue?
The only silver lining is a hat trick from Karamoko Sylla against Gagnoa — a brilliant performance in what many believe will be his last match in an Africa Sports shirt. The Board originally accepted a $1.2M offer (inclusive of add-ons), but cancelled it when I protested. (I immediately triggered his contract extension, as a negotiating tactic.)
We’ve since rejected a $3M offer (incl. add-ons), but the day may soon arrive when he departs. After 131 goals in 3 seasons, he is a verified club icon. If he stays, his status as a legend will be undeniable.
The big question is what we do to re-invigorate the squad. We will continue with PM Haaienvuist, which means we’re in the market for a central midfielder, right wingback, and centerback, and have only 1 foreign player slot available. Several brilliant young players are soon to be out of contract, but none are willing (as of yet) to negotiate.
(Of course, neither AFAD nor ASUX will negotiate with us for any of their brilliant young players.)
And, it goes without saying that if Sylla goes, we will need to replace him.
Goals for 2032/33: Win. Everything.
If you’ve stumbled upon this post and are finding yourself a bit confused… Don’t worry. The basic concept behind the Nearly Men of Africa is explained here. Just need to catch up? Each installment in Brendan Rodgers’ story can be accessed through the Nearly Men of Africa archive.