The host nation of this year’s African Cup of Nations, Ivory Coast, saved their skin. The West African nation had to qualify from the group stage as one of the third-best teams after amassing only three points in their three group-stage games.
They finished third in Group A after losing to Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, but they made it into the knockout round as one of the best losers.
What followed was a dramatic change to the technical team, which saw the dismissal of head coach Jean-Louis Gasset. In his stead, former Reading and Nantes midfielder Emerse Fae was named as the interim coach.
An Ivorian himself, the 40-year-old was part of the Elephants squad that finished as runners-up at the 2006 and 2008 Africa Cup of Nations and the 2006 FIFA World Cup. However, he spent the entirety of his career in Europe, playing in England and France.
According to Afrosports, when Fae was signed by English side Reading, he struggled to impress and also made only 11 appearances before the club’s relegation to the Championship and his return to France.
A dominant midfielder during his playing days, he was forced to retire from football at the young age of 28 due to phlebitis – inflammation of a vein in the leg.
Coaching the senior national team of Ivory Coast is not his first gig. He was previously a coach at his former club Nantes and he went on to coach the Ligue 1 club’s youth teams before joining Clermont as reserve team head coach, according to Afrosports.
He also coached the Ivory Coast U23 team in 2022 and assisted Gasset who was in charge of Ivory Coast’s national team until his exit following the country’s disastrous group stage games.
From an abysmal start to the 2023 African Cup of Nations tournament, Fae has guided the team to the finals and will face football powerhouse Nigeria on Sunday, February 11, 2024. They overcame DR Congo to reach the finals.
In a post match interview, he described the win as a “dream”.
“I am very happy, very moved, it’s like a dream,” he said after beating DR Congo 1-0. “I told the players: you are 27 players and I count on everyone. If we want to win this competition, we will win it with all 27…I’ve been telling the players that everyone is important, including those in the stands, and they understood the message.”
Should Ivory Coast emerge victorious on Sunday, their story would be one of the most telling in the history of world football. It would also give credibility to calls for African nations to hire local coaches.