Kei Kamara equalised for Sierra Leone and thought he had won it with the last action of the game.
By Mark Gleeson
Having clinched a place at the 2017 tournament over the weekend, African Nations Cup holders Ivory Coast can thank their lucky stars that goal line technology has yet to be introduced to the African continent.
Ivory Coast booked their place with a 1-1 draw against Sierra Leone but the match was not without its controversy. Local television conveniently showed no slow-motion replays but on initial viewing, there was every chance that Leone’s Kei Kamara might have scored with the last touch of their final qualifier against the reigning African champions in Bouake on Saturday.
In the end, a 1-1 draw at home against a nation 55 places below them in the FIFA rankings was enough to allow Ivory Coast to be able to defend the title they won in 2015.
Given all the travails Sierra Leone have been through, with the Ebola virus scare forcing them to host their home matches outside of the country, it was astounding they were even still in contention for an African Nations Cup place.
Not even the most vociferous of their supporters would have wagered much on them. Sierra Leone had only ever been to the finals twice, and the last time was 20 years ago, beating the mighty Ivory Coast in their backyard.
Saturday’s game was moved to Bouake in the north of the country, where a passionate support turned out. Everything was proceeding to script when Jonathan Kodjia, the new Aston Villa signing, spectacularly bicycle kicked the ball into the net to give Ivory Coast the lead.
Sierra Leone’s team is a motley collection of journeyman footballers earning their living in destinations like Belarus, Finland, Latvia, Moldova and Slovenia. Their star player is the striker Kei Kamara, who had an undistinguished stint with Norwich City and Middlesbrough, but found a lot more success in Major League Soccer with the likes of Sporting Kansas City and Columbus Crew.
He had made himself unavailable for selection for most of the qualifiers but was back for the game in Bouake and despite some heavy touches early on, he got progressively stronger as the game progressed. He then provided an explanation of why he was so eagerly welcomed back into the team with a diving header to equalise with 20 minutes to go. That suddenly handed Sierra Leone real hope. One more goal and they could claim a stunning victory and usurp Ivory Coast for top place in the group.
Both sides looked spent by the exertions of the heat but Sierra Leone forced a corner deep in stoppage time that Kamara headed towards goal, only for the ball to be cleared on the goal line. It was the final action of the game.
Did the ball cross the line? Some Sierra Leone players sought out the official to insist a goal should be given but the majority slumped to the ground, seemingly too exhausted to be bothered with arguing.
Ivorian television concentrated on the muted celebrations as the Ivorians acknowledged the feat of qualification and viewers were not offered a chance to see, with greater clarity, whether the ball had crossed the line or not.
Since then the Sierra Leone camp have claimed the ball did cross the line while Ivory Coast coach Michel Dussuyer has admitted his much-fancied team had been given a major fright.
“We are very pleased to be able to qualify for the Nations Cup finals but we would have wished to have done so with a victory,” he told local reporters after the game.
“Things did not go the way we wanted because, let’s face it, we were up against a Sierra Leone team that wanted it more. They tried somehow to shake us. But the main task is done. Qualification is in the pocket. We’ll dissect the game to see what we need to do to improve.”
On the face it, they’ll need to improve a lot. First, the Ivorians need to get clarity from Yaya Toure on whether he intends to play for the team or not. He promised a return in June but then claimed injury and again made himself unavailable for this weekend’s match. Meanwhile, his future at Manchester City looks bleaker than ever.
Wilfried Bony did not travel, Seydou Doumbia is still sulking after being dropped earlier in the year and Serge Aurier was injured. Eric Bailly did not impress in defence and China-based Gervinho looked well short of proper match fitness.
Evergreen striker Salomon Kalou, now 31, was their best player but he ran out of energy and was replaced midway through the second half.
The Ivorians must know they were incredibly fortunate but in the spotlight of the Nations Cup finals, there will be much closer scrutiny and they might not be as lucky in Gabon in January.
Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.