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AFCON Group Stage Drama: Managerial Setbacks, Sackings, and Club Struggles

AFCON Group Stage Drama: Managerial Setbacks, Sackings, and Club Struggles

Djamel Belmadi - Afrocritik

We take a look at four managers who exited the national teams and their time in charge leading up to the AFCON 2023.

By Destiny Chibuzor

In an interesting turn of events, following the conclusion of matchday three in the AFCON 2023 group stage, several managers of eliminated teams have been sacked. The Ghanaian football federation sets off this chain reaction after terminating manager Chris Hughton’s contract following Ghana’s disgraceful exit from the AFCON, with just two points. Côte d’Ivoire, who had suffered an embarrassing drubbing at the hands of Equatorial Guinea followed suit, sacking manager Jean-Louis Gasset after one year and eight months in charge of the Elephants.

Algeria and Gambia’s national teams are also currently without head coaches, as both managers have been forced out of their appointments as a consequence of their poor results at this year’s Nations Cup. As announced by the president of the Algerian Football Federation via his X handle, Coach Djamel Belmadi’s managerial contract with his nation was terminated on mutual agreement. Perhaps, a courtesy afforded him as a result of his 2019 success which saw Algeria clinch their second AFCON title. Gambia’s (now former) manager, Tom Saintfiet, resigned from his post as manager, taking responsibility for Gambia’s woeful finish early in the competition.

These developments have sparked mixed reactions across board, especially the sack of Côte d’Ivoire manager, Gasset, even though the Elephants are still in the competition. While it is undeniable that the stakes are high for the nation at this year’s AFCON and though a performance like the one the Elephants managed against Equatorial Guinea is unacceptable, handing manager Gasset the sack doesn’t quite fairly present his performance in office and may not be a smart move by the Ivorian FA. Whether the same can be said about the other managers who got the stick, we’ll take a look at their time in charge leading up to the AFCON 2023.

Chris Houghton | Ghana National Football Team

Chris Houghton - Afrocritik
Chris Houghton

The 65-year-old Irishman took over the reins as manager of the Ghanaian national football team on the 20th of March, 2023, with two games played in the 2024 AFCON Qualifying round. The Black Stars of Ghana had been without an official manager after Otto Addo resigned, following Ghana’s exit from the FIFA Qatar 2022 World Cup in the group stage. Addo had resigned stating that he intended to focus solely on his role as a talent coach at German strongholds Borussia Dortmund. Consequently, Annor Walker presided over the Ghana squad for a short period as caretaker until Houghton was appointed.

This was not his first contract with Ghana as he served as Technical Director for the squad for one year during Otto Addo’s stint as manager. Before undertaking managerial portfolios at the National level, the Irishman had plied his trade at various clubs across Europe. The most recent is a short stint at English football outfit Nottingham Forest, between October 2020 and September 2021 and before that, a spell at Brighton and Hove Albion between December 31st, 2014 and May 13th, 2019.

In his rather short-lived time as Ghana’s team manager, Houghton presided over 13 games in which his Black Stars managed just 30.77% of wins, equally losing 30.77% and drawing 38.46%. Not an outrightly bad record, but also not one that showed any clear signs of progress from the unconvincing state of the Black Stars team as witnessed in the World Cup. Before this edition of the AFCON in which Ghana managed no wins but suffered a loss and held two draws, they had four wins, three draws and three losses from 10 total games. Of these 10 games, only six were competitive matches, out of which Ghana won three, drew two, and lost one; a statistic that reads better in the appraisal of Houghton’s managerial differentia.

Ultimately, it would seem that Houghton’s dismissal is more of a reflection of the Ghanaian administration and national and team image than it is a reflection of Houghton’s quality. It has become a trademark of the Ghanaian Federation to sack managers after the Black Stars exit every major tournament. In 2020, James Kwesi Appiah was sacked following Ghana’s exit from the 2019 AFCON by Tunisia in the round of 16. In 2022, Serbian Manager, Milovan Rajevac failed to galvanise the Black Stars to make it out of Group C and was shown the door with a similar haste as Houghton has been led out. While not one of the past managers can be heralded as a “great” manager, it can be argued that the constant booting of managers after a handful of games contributes to the unfamiliar and disjointed output of the team.

Jean-Louis Gasset | Côte d’Ivoire National Football Team

Jean-Louis Gasset - Afrocritik
Jean-Louis Gasset

In what is arguably the most controversial and unexpected of the recent wave of managerial dismissals by African Football Federations, Côte d’Ivoire manager, Jean-Louis Gasset was sacked by the country’s federation on Wednesday, 24th of January, 2024. In a wild closing to their group stage ordeals, the 2024 AFCON hosts suffered a humbling four-nil loss at the hands of Equatorial Guinea – in front of home fans. French Manager, Gasset was consequently relieved of his job as gaffer after just one year and eight months in charge.

Gasset’s sacking at a moment like this is even more shocking when his results are appraised. He oversaw 17 games as manager of Côte d’Ivoire, winning ten, with three draws and four losses. Before the AFCON group stages, Gasset had nine wins, three draws and two losses in charge of the Elephants. In the immediate buildup to the AFCON 2023, Côte d’Ivoire went on a seven-game unbeaten streak. These statistics make it all the more surprising that the 70-year-old veteran has been booted on the cusp of a round of 16 qualification.

There are speculations that Gasset’s sacking was no shock to him and that he might have had a bar set for him before the AFCON. This is made apparent by the statement issued by the FIF and the post-match interview Gasset gave following the loss to Equatorial Guinea where the Frenchman stated that he would meet with the FIF president to “discuss his future”. Similarly, the FIF in their press release said the contracts of Gasset and his assistant were terminated due to “insufficient results” as required by their contracts.

Gasset took up the job after his countryman and former  Côte d’Ivoire manager Patrice Beaumelle’s contract was not renewed, following the Elephants AFCON 2021 round of 16 exit and failure to qualify for the World Cup. The quality of team performance on continental and global stages is a key parameter by which a national team manager is assessed. While Gasset has not done badly per se in his time in charge of the Elephants, he hasn’t quite impressed and in the AFCON group stage, had Côte d’Ivoire fans with their hearts in their mouth.

The appointment of Emerse Fae as a caretaker at this stage wasn’t met with confidence by all as some feared the change-up may throw the team in disarray and ultimately short-change their fortunes. Surprisingly, regardless of there being just six days between Fae’s appointment as caretaker and Côte d’Ivoire’s round-of-16 clash with Senegal, the Ivorian managed to galvanise his team to hold out a one-a-piece draw through extra time and win on penalty shootout. Côte d’Ivoire are through to the quarterfinals, having pulled off one of the most surprising upsets of this tournament.

Djamel Belmadi | Algeria National Football Team

Djamel Belmadi - Afrocritik
Djamel Belmadi

Unlike the first two managers on this list, Djamel Belmadi had stayed a  lengthy residence period on the job before being dismissed. Belmadi took over as Algeria’s manager in August 2018, and his time as gaffer was a relative success. His journey with the two-time AFCON winners began with them as one-time champions; Algeria won their second AFCON gold in 2019, with Belmadi in the reins. Unfortunately, the manager’s fortune has since then taken a nosedive.

Algeria played a total of 67 games under Belmadi’s supervision. They won 43 matches, drawing 17 and losing just 7. With a 64% win rate from his total games in charge, Belmadi has done himself proud, but perhaps it was time to move on considering the apparent drop in standards and resultant lack of positives from major recent outings. The most famous achievement of the Algerian manager is winning the AFCON 2019. Algeria maintained an unbeaten streak, drawing only one game which they later won on penalties. Since then, the Desert Foxes haven’t impressed at major tournaments.

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Algeria’s Desert Foxes failed to qualify for the FIFA  2022 World Cup in Qatar losing out to the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon on away goals after a two-leg tie ended two-two on aggregate. Similarly, in the 2021 Nations Cup which was held just about nine weeks before their World Cup Qualifiers tie against Cameroon, the Desert Foxes failed to make it out of the group in an embarrassing display. The tournament was Algeria’s title defence and yet they came to the forte totally unprepared and consequently stunned. They drew their first game and lost the latter two, crashing out with just one point. Regardless of the two disappointments, the Algerian Federation gave Belmadi the benefit of the doubt, trusting him to bounce back at this year’s AFCON.

It would seem trusting the Algerian legend was the right move by the federation as the Algeria National Team stormed through the AFCON 2024 Qualifiers unbeaten, racking up 16 points out of 18 available, with five consecutive wins and a draw on matchday 6. In some wise, this feat mirrored their 2019 form. Yet, in a dramatic turn of events, the Desert Foxes have crashed out of this edition of the AFCON on two points, with two draws and a loss from three games. A particularly infuriating factor in this matter is the fact that Algeria suffered a loss at the hands of Mauritania who had previously never won an AFCON game or made it to the playoffs.

In the end, it is probably for the best that Belmadi and the  Algerian Federation decided to part ways. A drag-on of the situation could perhaps have seen Belmadi’s AFCON 2019 glory not just tarnished but totally obscured by one too many bad returns. This scenario could have driven the federation to opt for a less respectful dismissal of the coach.

Tom Saintfiet | Gambia National Football Team

Tom Saintfiet - Afrocritik
Tom Saintfiet

Tom Saintfiet’s case is somewhat different from the three other managers highlighted in this saga. While Saintfiet is equally out of a job following his former team’s poor performance in the AFCON group stage, the Belgian was not sacked. There seems to have been no threat whatsoever to his position as head coach of the Gambian national team, regardless of their early exit from the Nations Cup. Interestingly, Saintfiet resigned as Gambia’s coach despite having two years left on his contract and the Gambian Federation had nothing but praise for him.

The Belgian manager took on the managerial job at Gambia in 2018, in the build-up to the AFCON 2019 tournament. The task was no small one as he was charged with leading the underdogs to their first-ever Nations Cup qualification. He failed to achieve this goal in 2019. The Gambia missed out on qualification, managing just one win in six qualifying games. They lost twice and held out for a draw thrice on the occasion. Similarly, the Scorpions were crushed underfoot by Angola in the World Cup qualifiers four-one on aggregate after a one-nil loss at home and a three-one defeat in Angola. Saintfiet’s second attempt at AFCON qualification was the charm.

The Gambia showed much more quality than in previous editions and deservedly booked a spot at the 2021 games. The first sign of this improvement was the Scorpion’s away victory over their World Cup Qualifiers adversary, Angola, three goals to one. One draw, two losses and two wins followed after this positive. The first win was against Gabon on Matchday 4 and the next was a one-nil win on home soil against Angola to complete the payback. The Scorpions made it to the quarterfinals where the competence of the tournament hosts, Cameroon, proved too much to surmount. Regardless of the exit from the biennial event, the Gambian FA met the progress sparked by Coach Saintfiet with glee and consequently backed him for continuance.

Once again, Saintfiet brought his Scorpions to the AFCON parle this year, and though they put up a venomous fight to try and make the playoffs, it wasn’t to be. After three games played in the group stages, the Scorpions secured no points. While on a red card, they lost three goals to nil to the defending champions Senegal. Their second and third games were equally losses; one nil to Guinea and then three goals to two in a deeply heartbreaking loss to Cameroun. In the aftermath of this, Saintfiet announced his resignation in a conference. The Gambia National Federation in a Facebook post thanked the Belgian tactician for his time with them. It would be interesting to see who picks up the mantle after Sainfiet and whether there will be an improvement in the fortunes of the Scorpions.

Destiny Chibuzor is a writer with an interest in sports, poetry and lifestyle. More than any recreational endeavour aside from music, he loves football and has played as a goalkeeper unprofessionally for a decade. He’s also a football commentator and shares his thoughts on the X app @De_Scribbler.

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