AFRICAN CHAMPION

Ivory Coast’s goalkeeper Boubacar Barry reacts during their African Cup of Nations final soccer match against Ghana in Bata, Equatorial Guinea, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015.
Associated Press / Themba Hadebe

It is said that the elephant has exceptional memory, and The Elephants of the Ivory Coast reminded us of this last Sunday in Equatorial Guinea. After winning their last African Nations Cup title against the Black Stars of Ghana 23 years ago, The Elephants conjured the old memory and beat Ghana’s Black Stars again on penalties, this time 9-8, to win the 2015 African Nations Cup Championship, their first since 1992.

It was the goalkeepers who decided the game! After a scoreless full time match and 30 minutes of overtime, all 10 field players on each side had taken their penalties and left the shootout tied at eight goals apiece; it was now the goalkeepers turn to kick at each other. When the Black Stars’ goalie Razak Braimah kicked first, Ghanaians heads dropped as The Elephants ‘keeper, Boubacar Barry, came up with a big saved that sent the Ivory Coast fans in a frenzy, but the ruckus was a match for what was to come. The stadium in Guinea went silent, almost dead quiet, as Barry stepped up to kick after he had been down with a pulled muscle, caused by his nerve-racking save; as he stepped to the ball, he placed his shot to the left of Braimah and into the back of the net and the celebrations began and continued back home.

Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara declared Monday a national holiday in honor of the win, and he greeted the players at the airport and joined the victory parade with The Elephants as they headed straight for the national stadium in the Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan. The stadium was filled to capacity with over 35,000 plus frenzied fans and many in neighborhoods in the area and throughout the country; Ivorians celebrated on a day dedicated to the victory – victory that had been in The Elephants memory the past 23 years.

“When we flew over the city we saw the amazing crowds. It was really moving,” said striker Wilfried Bony, who was taken aback by the popular outpouring.

“You can tell Ivory Coast is a nation that loves football,” quipped striker Salomon Kalou.

U. S. teams split

It was a weekend of mixed results for U.S. soccer last Sunday. On the day, the U.S. women’s national team lost for the first time in 17 games against host France, 2-0, in Lorient in an international friendly. The women are on a two-game European tour to prepare for the FIFA World Cup in Canada next summer. Later in the day, the U.S. men’s national team got its first win of the year and its first in six games dating back to early Sept. 2014, as it beat Panama, 2-0, in another friendly, at StubHub Center in Carson, CA.

The U.S. women came up against a very strong French team that was full of confidence and coming off recent wins over formidable opponents such as Brazil, Sweden and Japan. Ranked No. 3 in the world and with a capacity crowd of 15,663 at Mousoir Stadium serving as the 12th man, France was off to a positive start. Immediately, the French attacked the Americans goal as the USA returned the favor; it was a very well-played game with good technical skills and tactical play from the outset.

In what was still a fairly even game at the start of the second half, now the speed of the French was beginning to make a difference. France forged ahead in the 50th minute on a wonderful play when speedy Elodie Thomis beat U.S. defender Lori Chalupny down the right wing, got behind the U.S. defense and crossed to Eugenie Le Sommer, who finished with a classic header for the 1-0 lead; a minute later, Jessica Houara pounced on a through pass and sped pass the U.S. defenders again on the right side and crossed to the far post; fortunately for the French, the ball swerved into the back of the goal at the far post, leaving U.S. goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris stranded. France was now ahead, 2-0, and never looked back.

The USA’s all-time scoring leader Abby Wambach came off the substitute’s bench to help the effort but came up short when she missed a penalty that could have halved the score and help the U.S. stay in the game. The USA, now 14-1-2 versus France, was missing key players who are injured, including defender Christie Rampone, forward Sydney Leroux and goalkeeper Hope Solo who is suspended.

On the men’s side, an audience of 20,271 saw midfielder Michael Bradley and forward Clint Dempsey score first-half goals to lead the U.S. over Panama. Bradley scored directly form a corner kick in the 27th minute and Dempsey in the 37th as the USA cruised to victory. Panama did not pose many problems for the U. S. in a game that was basically uneventful. The talking points were that Miguel Ibarra and Los Angeles Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes got their first starts with the national team.

Ghana’s goalkeeper Razak Braimah dives as he fails to save the winning penalty from Ivory Coast’s goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, during their African Cup of Nations final soccer match in Bata, Equatorial Guinea, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015.
Associated Press / Themba Hadebe

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