This Africa Cup of Nations is far from over but it has already been a historic tournament for Guinea after they won a knockout tie for the first time, an achievement which left their coach Kaba Diawara in tears.
“For my staff and I this is really exceptional. It goes beyond football,” the former Arsenal striker tells AFP in an interview at the team’s hotel in Abidjan ahead of Friday’s quarterfinal against the Democratic Republic of Congo.
They have made it to this point after Mohamed Bayo’s last-gasp goal secured a 1-0 win over Equatorial Guinea.
“People might say why is he crying when it’s only the last 16, but it was really the moment of truth for us.
“So, I couldn’t hold back the tears and my staff were the same. We were crying our eyes out.”
Guinea were runners-up in 1976, but that was an era when there were no knockout ties, and the final four played a round-robin format to decide the winner.
They had already got out of their group at six separate Afcon tournaments this century without going further, including in 2006 when Diawara scored in a 3-2 defeat by Senegal.
This time, however, there are several factors spurring on the Syli National.
For a start, this Cup of Nations is in Ivory Coast, a country bordering Guinea, and Diawara’s team were roared on by huge support against Equatorial Guinea.
“In Ivory Coast we are practically playing at home,” the 48-year-old Diawara says, sweat dripping from his head in the midday heat on a shady terrace overlooking Abidjan’s waterfront.
“There is a very big Guinean community. I even have a big brother who was born here, so in Ivory Coast we might as well be in Guinea. We speak the same language, and we have the same religion.”
‘WE ARE RESPONSIBLE’
The last-16 win sparked frenzied celebrations in the stadium, but Diawara felt compelled to call for calm among supporters back home.
That was after six people were reportedly killed amid celebrations in the capital Conakry following the team’s 1-0 defeat of Gambia during the group stage.
Guinea is also reeling from another tragedy in December, when 24 people died and hundreds were injured in a huge blast and fire at a fuel depot in Conakry.
“We are responsible,” Diawara says of the most recent disaster.
“It was because of our victory. People are so happy when the team wins that the celebrations become a bit stupid.
“Of course, there should be celebrations. Of course, there was the disaster (in December), but that is exactly it, we want to avoid having to mourn more deaths.”
Diawara, who was born in France and played there for Bordeaux, Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille and Nice, took charge of the team before the last Cup of Nations in 2022, replacing Frenchman Didier Six.
He quickly made it his mission to tap into the large number of players with Guinean heritage born in Europe.
That means a squad which already contained midfielder Naby Keita, once of Liverpool, has since been strengthened by the likes of defender Mouctar Diakhaby and striker Serhou Guirassy, both former French youth internationals.
Guirassy has only started once so far here due to injury, but the 27-year-old is the big star, having scored 17 goals in 14 games in the Bundesliga this season for Stuttgart.
“I don’t like to single out one player. I prefer to talk about the squad, the team, the family even. But it is true that you can’t score 17 goals in the Bundesliga without being a special player,” the coach says.
“Beyond that, however, Africa has its own distinctive characteristics. It is completely different to Europe.
“There is the heat, the climate in general, the pitches. The Cup of Nations is an extraordinary competition, and it is a really high level. So you need to adapt.
“He was injured but he has been working his way back gradually and now is 100 per cent fit.”
It remains to be seen if he will dislodge Bayo against DR Congo, however.
Guinea, who finished third in their group behind Senegal and Cameroon, are now hoping to make more history.
“When you go into a competition it is with the aim of going all the way, even if we have never been lucky enough to get to the semifinals before.
“This time we can see that the path is opening up for us.”