How Guinea’s national team defied all expectations

Having racked up just four points from four games, it didn’t look like it was going to happen for Guinea

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In terms of excuses for not qualifying for a major tournament, a national epidemic is a pretty good reason.

While the evening news would suggest that hazmat suits are the new emblem of the Ebola-infected countries, there is one nation trying to make the red, yellow and green strip of their national football team the new totem – one that redefines expectations and reroutes the narrative.

Having racked up just four points from four games, it didn’t look like it was going to happen for Guinea. And who could have blamed them? Placed in a group with a typically unstoppable Ghana, a resurgent Uganda and Togo – who just always qualify – it would have been understandable to succumb to the barriers placed in front of them. Now, with less than 40 days till the kick off of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea, the West African country - who have been in the news for the most horrifying of reasons - are preparing their trip to their eleventh tournament.

Unlike those who make up the infection and death count, the impact of Ebola – especially for those outside the country – can be as much associated with its emotional stresses as well as its physical.

Whilst approximately 0.2 percent of the population have been confirmed as infected, the emotional stress, fear and worry exists for those who are not, as they become isolated from the rest of the world. And for the football team, they had to deal with their very own unique stresses and restrictions, which make their story of qualification even more incredible.

After a decision was taken by CAF, it was decided that Sierra Leone and Guinea would be required to find alternative venues to play their “home” matches for duration of the most recent qualification passage, as two of the three nations seriously affected with Ebola (Liberia did not make it this far).

Cue the manic search by the Fédération Guinéenne de Football (FGF) to find a host, and after Senegal rejected them, it was Morocco who took on the mantle – in a decision that would later prove to be quite ironic. With the Stade Mohamed V in Casablanca their new home from home outside of Conakry, their inaugural match in the stadium was an impressive 2-1 victory over Togo, with Seydouba Soumah grabbing the first in what would turn out to be an impressive qualification campaign for him.

It was thereafter the problems mounted, as they prepared to travel to Kampala to play Uganda. After discussions between the FA and the government, Uganda imposed restrictions on number in the travelling party – with just 25 allowed to travel - as well a protocol of round-the-clock checks to accompany the health screenings that CAF had sanctioned.

Described as “draconian restrictions” by FGF spokesman Mamadou Ba Blaire Camara, the Ugandans proceeded to go beyond CAF recommendations in these travel bans, with the continental federation admitting that stopping countries putting in place such plans was difficult to enforce.

Losing 2-0 to a Geofrey Massa brace, such events were what Guinea would have to get used to. In the following round of games – a double-header against group-favorites Ghana – involvement from the domestic side of football was the issue. Winger Lass Bangoura made headlines around these games, as he tried to avoid issues with his club side Rayo Vallecano by pulling out of the international squad, despite admitting that there was no issue.

Quoted by ESPN, he said, “I was not concerned about the people coming from Guinea…[ but] I came back as I did not want problems with Rayo, and so that my teammates would trust in me”. With key man Ibrahima Traore also understood to have been isolated by his teammates at Borussia Monchengladbach upon his return, you can get idea of the stigma from European misplaced fear of Ebola the players had to put up with.

“We’ve had to go around in a very strange context, with health checks and fleeting glances”, said manager Michael Dussuyer. “There have been some measures we’ve felt have been discriminatory and when you have you temperature take twice a day it can get annoying. There is great satisfaction in being able to qualify and to silence our detractors.”

And silence them they did. A 4-1 destruction of Togo in Lomé set a big finale in Casablanca, as they faced Uganda in the final game – a match in which the victors would almost certainly finish second behind Ghana and qualify. A 2-0 victory, with goals from the two main men of qualifying – Ibrahima Traore and Seydouba Soumah - sealed their route to Equatorial Guinea, sparking mass celebrations from the players and the limited fans who made the trip to Morocco for the game. One can only imagine the scenes had the game been played in Conakry.

Looking at the experiences of Sierra Leone, this stands out as a phenomenal achievement. As they overcame the psychological distress, the stigma and the institutionally enforced barriers to gain the reward of a place in Africa’s premier competition.

But it is not just an opportunity for sporting achievement, but also a chance to redefine the contemporary meaning of “Guinea,” to sever the ties with Ebola, and show that they are a country not just made up of hand-washing stations and people in hazmat suits, but a nation that is strong and unwilling to be defeated.