The roar of the Ebimpe Olympic Stadium could be a tad muted on Saturday evening as Ivory Coast, the AFCON hosts, kick off their tournament campaign against Guinea-Bissau without their talismanic striker, Sebastien Haller. The Borussia Dortmund frontman’s ankle woes cast a shadow over the Elephants’ aspirations of lifting the trophy for the third time.
Haller, who hasn’t found the net for Dortmund since August, is a potent symbol of Ivory Coast’s attacking prowess. His absence leaves a gaping hole in the front line, forcing coach Jean-Louis Gasset to tinker with his plans. Adingra’s muscle injury adds to the selection headache, although Gasset insists both forwards are on the mend.
Despite the setbacks, optimism reigns in the Ivorian camp. The nation expects, and Gasset, a seasoned figure in French football, understands the pressure cooker environment. His job is to harness the fervent expectation and channel it into fuel for his players. “Transform the pressure into something positive,” the 70-year-old declared, aiming to unleash the power of playing on home soil.
However, Gasset warns against complacency. Guinea-Bissau, the perennial underdog, are no pushovers. They stunned Nigeria in qualifying and arrive with aspirations of their own. Gasset cautions against underestimating their grit, reminding everyone that “there are no small teams anymore.”
The opening game, therefore, carries added significance. Not just the first step towards glory, it’s a litmus test of character for an Ivory Coast side grappling with injuries and the weight of expectation. Can the Elephants, without their fangs, roar past the Djurtus? The Ebimpe Olympic Stadium holds its breath.