When you enter the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) as the defending champion, recent history tends not to favor your campaign. On Monday, Senegal, the current title holder, was knocked out in a penalty shootout during the round of 16 by host nation Ivory Coast after an intense 120 minutes of action at the deafening Charles Konan Banny de Yamoussoukro Stadium.
This elimination marks a trend where no defending champion has advanced beyond the first knockout round of an AFCON since Egypt achieved a third consecutive title in 2010.
Ivory Coast’s interim coach, Emerse Fae, acknowledged the challenging start but praised his players for maintaining their composure. “We had a difficult start, conceding an early goal, but I told the players at halftime to keep playing the same way, not get confused,” Fae told reporters.
Despite Ivory Coast’s shaky start in the group stage, including a 4-0 defeat to Equatorial Guinea, the team showed improvement during Monday’s match. They secured an equalizer just four minutes before full-time, aided by VAR intervention after a disputed penalty decision.
Referee Pierre Atcho initially failed to award a penalty when Senegal goalkeeper Edouard Mendy brought down former Arsenal winger Pepe in the box. However, after reviewing the incident on the pitch-side monitor, Atcho reversed his decision, and Franck Kessié confidently converted the penalty.
The stadium’s atmosphere reached a fever pitch as fans began to believe in a comeback. The match extended to a nerve-wracking 30 minutes of extra time, culminating in a penalty shootout where Senegal’s Moussa Niakhaté’s miss allowed Kessié to secure Ivory Coast’s quarterfinal spot with a winning spot-kick.
The journey of this seemingly troubled Ivory Coast team is remarkable, considering the mid-tournament dismissal of former coach Jean-Louis Gasset. Fae, now at the helm, has orchestrated an unexpected victory over the reigning champion, Senegal.
“Qualifying after Morocco’s win gave us confidence. We beat Senegal and eliminated them; morale is good,” said Fae. “We must not stop here; we must continue working, maintain this morale, and keep playing match by match,” he emphasized.
Ivory Coast’s next challenge in the quarterfinals awaits, where they will face either Mali or Burkina Faso.