It was to the dismay of African football fans that Ivory Coast and Ghana were sent packing from Brazil at the earliest of stages last summer.
Only one African team, Algeria, was left standing after the group stages, becoming Africa’s highest internationally ranked team since.
That is very likely to change soon though, if FIFA’s dubious rankings panel has been following the AFCON 2015.
The Wake Up Call
Ivory Coast started the tournament with a continuation of their tamed World Cup display. Gervinho, a player considered to be in resurgence after his move to AS Roma from Arsenal, was sent off after only 58 minutes in the opening game as his frustrated team trailed unlikely Guinea.
Having saved face and earned a point with a late equalizer, Ivory Coast played Mali in their second group match. The result was another uneventful 1-1 draw which put their AFCON title ambitions in doubt. They would have to win against the group’s strongest team in Cameroon to make it to the next round.
Luckily for them, Gradel’s 36th minute goal would be enough to win that game, and after another unconvincing display Ivory Coast were through.
Ghana’s start was no different.
Having led 1-0 against Senegal through a penalty, Ghana would crumble in the second half, conceding two (including an extra time goal) to lose their opening match. Playing tournament favorite Algeria in their second game, they could only muster half chances until talismanic striker Asamoah Guyan produced a moment of individual brilliance to earn them an extra time winner of their own.
It wasn’t their strongest performance by far, but it signified a will to fight it out until the last minute, a factor reminiscent of their 2010 World Cup campaign.
Coincidentally, the Black Stars’ final opponent in the group stages was South Africa, and had it not been for the latter’s ability to self-destruct in the grandest of fashions (Exhibit A: dropping a one goal lead to lose 3-1 to Algeria; Exhibit B: taking another lead against Senegal only to concede in the second half and drop points; Exhibit C: leading against Ghana and then conceding 2 goals in 10 minutes to bow out) the Black Stars would currently be watching the games from the comfort of their couches.
If Les Elephants and the Black Stars had miserable starts to their tournaments, the knockout rounds have been anything but. Both teams have been cruising, dismantling the opposition and scoring freely. Ghana’s trajectory has been aided by easier opponents such as Guinea and host Equatorial Guinea (they beat both 3-0 and 3-0 respectively). Ivory Coast’s form, meanwhile, has coincided with Gervinho’s return, who has scored 2 goals in 2 matches to help his team convincingly beat the tournament favorites Algeria, and the wildcard that was Congo to get to the final.
Only they stand in each other’s path now, and come Sunday, both will have to forget their World Cup nightmares to lay their hands on the continental title.
But whatever the outcome, one thing’s for sure: fans of African football will stay wide awake for this dream matchup.