AFCON 2023: Emerse Fae's improbable path to success with Ivory Coast

From unknown to AFCON glory: Emerse Fae's improbable path to success with Ivory Coast
Emerse Fae in the dugout ahead of the AFCON final
Emerse Fae in the dugout ahead of the AFCON final
As the final whistle blew in the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) final, interim coach Emerse Fae (40) could hardly believe his eyes. Just one month ago, he was a virtual unknown, hastily appointed to steer Ivory Coast out of crisis. Then, there he stood, an African champion amidst one of football's great modern fairytales.

Born in France to Ivorian parents in 1984, Fae's playing career was modest but solid. After representing France at youth level, he switched allegiance to Ivory Coast in 2004. A skilful central midfielder, Fae played primarily in France's Ligue 1, suiting up for Nantes, Nice, and Bastia.

In 2006, Fae was part of the Ivory Coast squad that suffered AFCON heartbreak losing 4-2 on penalties to Egypt. The game itself had finished 0-0 after extra time, but the shootout quickly turned into a nightmare for Ivory Coast. As the dejected Ivorian players watched Egypt lift the trophy, midfielder Fae was inconsolable, sinking to his knees with his head in his hands. 

Having battled so hard to reach the final, to lose in such agonising fashion was too much for Fae to bear. The distraught midfielder had to be helped from the field by teammates, the disappointment of coming so close but ultimately falling short at the last hurdle etched on his face. An image of sporting anguish left a permanent mark on Fae.

It was a scar that he would have the chance to erase 18 years later. Fae had an earlier opportunity to realise his dream but once again missed out on the 2012 AFCON due to injury. 

“I would have loved to play in this AFCON but sadly destiny wanted it otherwise,” he told the press as he announced his retirement.

Following his retirement, Fae pursued coaching, starting with Nice's youth teams. In 2021, he was appointed manager of Clermont's reserves before being named assistant coach of the Ivory Coast national team in 2022 under Jean-Louis Gasset.

Nobody could have predicted what came next. On January 20th, with Ivory Coast underperforming in their home AFCON, Gasset was sacked after a humiliating 4-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea. With elimination looming during the group stage, the federation took a gamble - appointing the inexperienced Fae as interim head coach.

The final standings in Group A

Suddenly, the softly-spoken 40-year-old was tossed into the turbulence with the hopes of a football-mad nation on his shoulders. The team was low on confidence and fractured after poor results. Yet somehow, Fae united the squad when it mattered most.

Ivory Coast scraped through the groups qualifying as one best third-place teams, setting up a daunting round-of-16 clash with Africa's top-ranked team, Senegal. But Fae devised a masterful game plan to stifle Senegal, as the match finished 1-1 after extra time. In the penalty shootout, Ivory Coast held their nerve, winning 5-4 to advance

Sadio Mane admitted after the game that “the best team on the day won.”

A quarterfinal date with Mali followed, and again Ivory Coast left it late. With the score 1-1 in extra time, Oumar Diakite popped up in the 119th minute to score and book their semi-final spot.

Ivory Coast's grit and determination under Fae was now on full display. After a rather gruelling 1-0 semi-final win over DR Congo, the exhausted Elephants faced the prospect of five matches in just 16 days. 

Yet through expert man management and tactical flexibility, Fae coaxed every last ounce from the weary side. His calm demeanour also settled players, as belief in Fae's methods grew.

The final pitted Ivory Coast against rivals Nigeria who were undefeated all tournament. But Fae had a master plan to limit Nigeria's attackers, as his side racked up 62% of possession and kept Jose Peseiro’s men in their half.

The approach paid dividends, as Franck Kessie and Sebastien Haller scored second-half goals to lead Ivory Coast to a famous 2-1 victory. Against all odds, Fae had led his nation to glory in the span of just 18 days.

As Fae lifted the AFCON trophy, fireworks filled the sky. "It's more than a fairytale. I'm struggling to take it all in," an emotional Fae told reporters.

"When I think of all we have overcome, we are miracle survivors."

Fae paid tribute to the squad's resilience and the man he replaced. "We kept having to come from behind and drew on our mental reserves." He also acknowledged his predecessor's role, noting: "This victory is also Jean-Louis'"

Ivorian fans celebrated long into the night, lauding their new coaching hero. Fae was showered with praise by neutrals and pundits too, who were amazed by his swift transformation of Ivory Coast's fortunes. He was named Best Coach of the 2023 AFCON for his against-the-odds achievement.

Just one month ago, Fae was an unknown assistant. Today he leaves as an African legend. His tactical genius and ability to inspire men will never be forgotten. For Fae, it is the stuff of dreams - an African crown that had eluded him as a player now his as a manager. Fate handed him an unexpected chance at glory, and Fae grasped it with both hands, leading Ivory Coast on an unforgettable four-week journey. 

Long after the celebrations end, Fae's interim tenure will be remembered as one of AFCON's greatest coaching miracles. It just goes to show that in football, magic can happen when opportunity meets preparation. And in 2023, the French-born Ivorian walked that fine line to deliver Ivory Coast their wildest dreams.


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