Chaos reigns and ref fights back as Ivory Coast reach home Afcon semi-final

Mali 1-2 Ivory Coast (Dorgeles 71′ | Adingra 90′, Diakite 120+2)

BOUAKE — Rather than marking the end of a match, the sharp whistles instead signalled the start of a great madness.

At one end of the pitch in Bouake’s Stade de la Paix, referee Mohammed Adel is being attacked by Malian players, incensed that they cannot take a late corner kick but really just unable to process what has been inflicted upon them and what they have inflicted upon themselves.

Adel, being jostled and shoved, jostles and shoves back. The officials are committing yellow card offences! Everybody is magnetised towards abject chaos because chaos is the only thing that they can see, hear and feel. That includes those who should know better.

Fifty yards away, orange shirts run wild and free. These players have had cramp on and off for the best part of an hour and yet have never had more energy, because that is the power of a victory that feels sent from heaven itself.

On the halfway line, Malian coach Eric Chelle asks an assistant to pour cold water over his face from a nearby bottle, presumably in vain hope of waking him up from this awful dream.

Around all these protagonists, those in despair and elation, tens of thousands of people threw themselves into frantic, thrashing shapes. They believed that their team could go through at kick-off, but nobody really buys into things going like this. These are tales from story books and silly daydreams.

How to best epitomise such madness? Try this: in the three minutes that envelop that final whistle, two players receive red cards and this humble scribe does not notice until at least 10 minutes later. Oumar Diakité is the first, a second yellow for celebrating the most astonishing goal a major tournament could ever expect – rules are rules but emotions are also emotions. He will miss the semi-final and that is a desperate shame.

The second is Hamari Traore of Mali, for his role in the outrageous post-match dissent. His acts are far less forgivable, albeit related tangentially to Diakité’s own over-emotion. A line was crossed and Traore should expect a ban of significant length. All that is for another day. This is the day that matters.

There are mad, unfathomable tournaments and then there is the 2024 Africa Cup of Nations. There are mad, unfathomable endings and then there is this: a team wanting a penalty shootout more than anything in the world, failing to get one and that somehow being the only thing in the world they wanted more.

The only unsurprising element: this Ivorians doing it the hard way. In their last four games at this tournament, they have lost 1-0, 4-0, conceded two penalties, had a man sent off, trailed for 190 minutes and led for less than 190 seconds. You see if they care. This is tournament football, where surviving is thriving. Better to live a charmed life than fall on your sword with honour.

Still, this is getting a little silly. Take one player in one half, the unfortunate Odilon Kossounou. Kossounou will go back to Germany to play a part in Bayer Leverkusen’s Bundesliga title challenge. In 44 minutes here he had one penalty concession scratched off by VAR, gave away another (saved by Yahia Fofana), got booked and then got booked again.

Mali were guilty of not making that dominance count, no doubt. They took the lead through a wonderful curled strike by Nene Dorgeles, itself a story. Nene was born to Ivorian parents and did not celebrate. He is a symbol of Africa’s vast, finally-being-tapped talent, having passed through Mali’s great talent conveyor belt: JMG Academy Bamako, FC Liefering, RB Salzburg. Remember the name (as if you could forget any of this night).

But before and after that, Mali allowed the match to go stale and thus allowed Ivory Coast to stay alive. In those moments, although we did not know it at the time, the secrets of alchemy were being formulated.

Simon Adingra scored the equaliser in one set of stoppage time, a mazy run from a sadly half-fit player rewarded with a lucky bounce and stabbed finish. Diakité scored the winner in another set, an obscenely intuitive flick with his heel.

We still have more of this, if we can peel this country off its ceiling in time. Wednesday brings a semi-final against DR Congo and Ivory Coast will be the favourites. But then they shouldn’t be here anyway. Chaos is their closest friend. Mania is their bedfellow. Giving up is for quitters. Ivory Coast will not accept that this dream may end.

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