Redemption games: Teams traumatised by off-field atrocity and on-field nightmare add sub-plots to tournament

Togo fans are hoping for a miracle after the 2010 shooting in Angola in which captain Emmanuel Adebayor was caught up. Picture: PA
Togo fans are hoping for a miracle after the 2010 shooting in Angola in which captain Emmanuel Adebayor was caught up. Picture: PA
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FOR drama, there was not much to live with it in the world of football in 2012.

Unfancied Zambia against glamorous Ivory Coast in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in Libreville, Gabon. The Copper Bullets versus the Elephants, men from the Free State Stars and Super Sport United and ZESCO Ndola on one side and guys from Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea on the other. Before the tournament started you would never have put them together in the final. Didier Drogba’s team, yes. Stophira Sunzu’s team, no.

Stophira Sunzu. The name is now legend in certain parts of Africa. The final went to penalties. After 16 attempts the score stood at 7-7 with Gervinho to go next for Ivory Coast and Sunzu to follow him for Zambia. Gervinho, the £10 million striker from Arsenal and Sunzu, the nothing centre-half from TP Mazembe via Zanaco Lusaka and Konkola Blades. Gervinho missed and Sunzu scored and African football was turned on its head in an instant.

The aftermath was as memorable as the shoot-out. The victory was about fate, they said. How else could Zambia halt a team that boasted a midfield of Yaya Toure, Cheick Tiote and Didier Zokora with Gervinho and Soloman Kalou playing ahead of them and Drogba as the lone striker? God’s work. Nineteen years earlier a plane carrying the Zambian national team to a World Cup qualifier in Senegal ditched into the Atlantic only a few hundred metres offshore from the stadium in Libreville and all 25 passengers perished. In 2012, Zambia had beaten Senegal in the group phase and then triumphed near the scene of the tragic loss of their predecessors.

The Africa Cup of Nations begins anew at Soccer City in Johannesburg on Saturday and, if there is to be another fairytale, then surely it is Togo’s turn. This is their first appearance in the Cup of Nations since their bus came under gunfire attack in the 2010 tournament in Angola. Two of their party were killed and their goalkeeper, Kodjovi Obilale, suffered injuries that meant he hasn’t played football since.

The 2013 tournament sees many landmarks. It is being hosted by South Africa but it was due to be hosted by Libya, until civil war took hold. It is being played against a backdrop of a match-fixing scandal at the heart of the South African football association and after the bitter controversy of Senegal being kicked out because of the rioting of their fans. And there is the saga of Emmanuel Adebayor’s involvement. The Tottenham striker is the totem of the Togolese. Or at least he was, then he wasn’t (after he fell out with the football federation). Then he returned, then he left and now he has returned again, much to the relief of Didier Six, the former French international who is coach of Togo. Not that it had much to do with Six. Adebayor agreed to set aside his concerns over security and payment after meeting Togolese president Faure Gnassingbe. “I told him Togo football is sick and must find some medicine,” said Adebayor last week.

In truth, Togo have little chance having been drawn with hot favourites Ivory Coast and the promising Algerians. Ghana and Nigeria are also on a shortlist of potential winners along with the host nation, who will kick things off on Saturday against Cape Verde, who have never played in the Cup of Nations in their history. The curtain-raiser might pit one-time Rangers bench-warmer Dean Furman against David Silva, once of Kilmarnock. The connections to Scottish football’s past, present and future don’t end there. Sol Bamba is part of the Ivory Coast squad. Efe Ambrose is with Nigeria, as is Juwon Oshaniwa, one of Neil Lennon’s targets in this transfer window. So, too, is Emmanuel Emenike, the Spartak Moscow striker whose goal at Celtic Park nearly had calamitous consequences for the home team. Instead, Celtic will play Juventus, the Italians also losing a man to the tournament in the shape of Ghana’s Kwadwo Asamoah. If it goes to seeding, Ambrose might get a pre-Champions League look at Asamoah in the quarter-finals in Rustenburg on 3 February.

Ivory Coast are expected to win, but then they always are since actually doing it in 1992. Since then, they have seen Egypt win four times, Cameroon twice and Nigeria, South Africa and, most gallingly, Zambia victorious once each. Ivory Cost have lost two finals since 2006, both on penalties.

“I missed my penalty last year but this time I will score the winner to offer the trophy to Ivory Coast,” said Gervinho. “It was very tough [last year]. It should have been a great moment and it turned into a nightmare. My aim is to redeem myself this time and I know I will do it. We are not getting carried away and thinking of the final but we learnt a lot from the defeat last season. We know we need to avoid penalty kicks as we don’t have good takers, especially me.”

Ivory Coast will have to get past Algeria, Tunisia and Togo in Group D. Drogba versus Adebayor is the first match in that pool and both men are on a mission. The former to right the wrongs of last year’s final, which saw him miss a penalty in normal time. The latter to honour the memory of his late colleagues from that atrocity in Angola three years ago.