x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Team Ivory Coast enters Fifa Under 17 World Cup quarter-finals

The West Africans are void of individual stars and unity can see them go far in the tournament, writes Gary Meenaghan.

It does not matter who scores a goal as long as Ivory Coast team celebrate the effort together. Sarah Dea / The National
It does not matter who scores a goal as long as Ivory Coast team celebrate the effort together. Sarah Dea / The National

FUJAIRAH // Two years ago, a squad of 21 young Ivorian footballers and a throng of coaches arrived in the industrial city of Queretaro, about 200 kilometres north of Mexico City. The team were due to play France in the last 16 of the Fifa Under 17 World Cup and had shown much promise in the group stages.

In three games, the West Africans had scored eight goals, a record bettered only by Germany, yet one player had scored them all. Souleymane Coulibaly had opened his account against Australia, before banging four past Denmark and netting a perfect treble against the much-fancied Brazil.

France, in contrast, had squeezed through their group courtesy of a 3-0 win over Argentina and having drawn their other two matches, 1-1. They arrived in Queretaro knowing, however, that as long as they could stifle the attacking threat of their opponents’ muscular striker, progression was possible.

Coulibaly scored after just three minutes when the French goalkeeper dropped a cross, but for the remainder of the match, the Ivorian forward found himself tightly marked and France eventually triumphed 3-2.

Last night, a squad of 21 young Ivorian footballers and a throng of coaches arrived in the far-flung emirate of Fujairah, around 200km north of Abu Dhabi.

The team played Morocco, the team played with a game plan, the team won 2-1, and the coach, Ibrahima Kamara, called it a “good team performance”.

In Ivory Coast’s four games in the tournament, five different players have found the back of the net.

They defend as a unit, attack as a unit and pack the midfield with fast, physical bodies. Their top scorer this month, Moussa Bakayoko, has two goals.

“I try to teach the players that if we want to play good, successful football, we must play as a team,” said Kamara, who was appointed coach earlier this year. “I wanted to rid the team of individualism and instead form a collective of players based on teamwork.”

The game plan appears to be operational. From the first minute, the Ivorians showed their intentions, passing the ball quickly around the midfield and pushing it out wide, working to find an opening.

Within four minutes, they had the lead through their captain, Franck Kessie, who fired home a penalty after Meite Yakou, the Paris Saint-Germain forward, was dragged back in the area.

Morocco had impressed in earlier matches and in Younes Bnou Marzouk have a proven matchwinner, yet Kamara’s men did to Bnou Marzouk what France had managed against Coulibaly two years ago. They squeezed, doubled-teamed and ensured he hardly touched the ball. In the first half, Morocco managed one shot on target.

After the break and pushing for an equaliser, Morocco dominated possession yet struggled to break down a well-organised Ivorian defence that crowded out potential attacks. When the north Africans eventually did equalise, it was through a mix of good fortune and great finishing.

Bnou Marzouk tried to play a quick one-two with Omar Arjoune on the edge of the area. It was blocked by Kessie but bounced back into Bnou Marzouk’s path, and the Juventus striker quickly feinted left, shifted right and, despite having four Ivorian bodies before him, squeezed an unstoppable shot into the bottom corner.

“That is what he is capable of,” Abdellah El Idrissi, the Moroccan coach said of his forward, before praising the organisation of the opposition.

Morocco’s goal seemed to motivate Ivory Coast, though they always looked more likely to end the match victorious.

Yakou and Bakayoko both found themselves on the end of well-worked chances to increase the team’s lead, only to be thwarted by the opposition goalkeeper.

Eventually it was left to Junior Ahissan, who pounced on a defensive mistake, to restore his country’s advantage.

Ivory Coast will now meet Argentina in the quarter-finals in Sharjah. The last time they played South American opposition at an international tournament, Coulibaly scored three goals. No indication has yet been provided that Kamara’s squad includes a player capable of such a feat.

What the side does include, however, is 21 players willing to work for each other and share the goals in the quest for glory.

“We try to teach them to play as teammates, not as stars,” Kamara said.

So far, it is working.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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