When the final whistle was blown at the end of Côte d'Ivoire's 3-1 CAF Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final victory against Algeria, the first player to rush up to Ivorian goalkeeper Sylvain Gbohouo was Boubacar Barry. The embrace was not only congratulatory, it was also a symbolic gesture of a position having been passed on.
Belgium-based Barry – known by his fans simply as 'Copa' – has been the Elephants' undisputed man between the poles since the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, when he took over the No1 jersey from Jean-Jacques Tizie for the final group game and then held the position through the next two World Cup campaigns as well as four CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals.
Coming to Equatorial Guinea, there were already indications that the 34-year-old Barry, who was rapidly approaching his 100th cap, would be replaced by Gbohouo, who kept goals for the west Africans' two final qualifying matches. It was not an easy decision for Côte d'Ivoire coach Herve Renard, given Barry's standing. “Sometimes you are right and sometimes your are wrong. But I was sure about him. It is just that I think his time was coming.
“Don't forget, he played in the final of the CAF Confederation Cup with his team. So he is one of the best goalkeepers in Africa, but that does not mean we have to forget what Boubacar Barry did. But now is the time to change something and I changed something.”
Repaying the faith
Gbohouo, who was a member of the Côte d'Ivoire squad in Brazil last year, is considered an excellent ball stopper on the line. His imposing figure allows him to often get the better of strikers in one-on-one situations, including penalties. If he has any weaknesses, it is his aerial command of his area, which has not cost him in Equatorial Guinea. In his first match at the finals, Gbohouo was called upon to make a number of saves as Guinea were on the verge of a major upset having gone a goal up, but the goalkeeper kept his side in the game and was rewarded with a 1-1 draw at the end. The second match against Mali followed a similar pattern with the same outcome, before Gbohouo and his team-mates secured a 1-0 victory against Cameroon in a winner-take-all match that saw the Elephants through to the quarter-finals against Algeria.
Facing the top ranked team in Africa, Wilfried Bony gave Côte d'Ivoire the lead, but El Arabi Soudani equalised shortly after the restart, sparking off a period of complete domination by the North Africans. But try as they did, the Desert Foxes could simply not beat Gbohouo a second time and when the goalkeeper pulled off a world-class save to prevent Soudani's point-blank effort from crossing the line midway through the second half, the Algerian players must have realised that it was not going to be their day. A second goal by Bony and a late strike by Gervinho gave the Elephants' their fourth semi-final appearance from the last six competitions.
Renard's team will face Congo DR in the semi-finals in Bata on Wednesday, wanting to settle an old score. “We have to work even harder now, in order to be ready for our semi-final against Congo DR. They beat us at home in qualifiers last autumn, so we have to take our revenge. It was not easy to get here. We faced a good Algerian team, which had a good control of the ball," Gbohouo said.
There is a strong bond between Gbohouo and Barry – as well as youngster Sayouba Mande, who is the third choice goalkeeper. “This very close connection between the three is good for the team. But we have to congratulate Copa, because when you come to one tournament like this, when you have almost 100 caps, you can imagine it must be very difficult to lose your place. So congratulations to his spirit because he gave a very good strength to Sylvain,” explained Renard.
Seasoned African campaigner
Gbohouo plays his club football for Sewe Sports, joining them in 2009 from Lagoke FC, who at the time were also campaigning in Ligue 1. Since moving, he won the Best Goalkeeper award and the Côte d'Ivoire championship for the last three years, allowing him to showcase his talents to an African audience.
In 2013, the Portuaires embarked on a successful CAF Champions League campaign during which they came close to advancing to the semi-finals and a year later an outstanding Gbohouo helped the San Pedro-based team into the CAF Confederation Cup final, which they lost on the away goal rule to Egyptian giants Al Ahly.
His heroics in the latter campaign and especially in the return leg in Cairo, in which he only conceded a goal deep into second half injury-time, have not gone unnoticed. Club president Eugene Diomande said recently that the keeper could well leave the club. Gbohouo's exploits in Equatorial Guinea will not have harmed his chances of moving to an even bigger club in the near future any harm.