He who laughs last laughs loudest, so they say, although when Michel Dussuyer finally did gain a measure of revenge over Herve Renard on Friday—as Benin eliminated Morocco from the Africa Cup of Nations—all he could do was lick his lips and look lost.
This is the third consecutive Afcon in which these two have tussled.
In 2015, Dussuyer’s Guinea took a point from Renard’s Ivory Coast, although the Elephants would go on to clinch the title while the Syli Nationale fell in the quarter-finals.
Two years later, Dussuyer had stepped into the latter’s shoes, taking the reins of the reigning African champions as they looked to retain their title in Gabon.
Dussuyer had added Wilfried Zaha, Jean Michael Seri and Franck Kessie to his team’s ranks, and they were expected to be among the final teams standing, only to bomb in Oyem.
They were held by Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo in their opening two matches, before an evening showdown with a Morocco side who themselves needed to avoid defeat to advance to the quarter-finals.
Anyone hoping that things would finally click for the Elephants when the chips were down was left bitterly disappointed.
While Renard’s Atlas Lions managed the game perfectly, with just the right amount of grit and cynicism; slowing things down, and taking their big chance through Rachid Alioui, the Ivorians were uninspired and, ultimately, helpless.
While Renard urged his team forward from the touchline, summoning the frantic aggression he’d used to inspire Zambia to the title in 2012, Dussuyer was passive.
The Elephants, floundering, struggling to click, looked to him for solutions—as they had done to Renard two years beforehand—but nothing was forthcoming from Dussuyer.
Seri, dropped after the opener, was introduced from the bench but struggled to adapt to the rhythm of the game, while the coach later withdrew the ineffective Zaha for Jonathan Kodjia.
With only five minutes on the clock, he turned to Max-Alain Gradel, a player who so consistently knits things together in the final third for the Ivorians, and gets the best out of those around him, yet it was too little, and far too late.
The contrast between Renard, white shirt flexed, fists pumping, and Dussuyer, insipid, pale, pallored, was stark.
Needless to say, the latter didn’t last long in his post after the Ivorians’ miserable first-round exit. He’d had his chance to manage one of the continent’s giants—after an international career that had previously consisted of three stints with Guinea and a two-year spell with Benin—and the suspicion was that he’d found his level.
Perhaps Dussuyer was never destined to get the best out of Africa’s top players, and in 2018, the Benin Football Federation turned back to him in a bid to reach the Nations Cup.
The Squirrels have impressed in Egypt, even though they didn’t pick up a win in their group.
As they were helped by the tournament’s expansion to 24 teams to qualify, so they were helped to reach the Last 16, advancing as one of the best third-placed teams with three points.
While their performances haven’t been particularly inspiring; they were fortunate not to fall behind against Cameroon and were unable to find the net against Guinea-Bissau, they deserve credit for taking the game to Ghana in their opener, finding the net after two minutes through Mickael Pote.
The towering forward equalised just after the hour mark after the Black Stars—who had responded through the Ayew brothers—had been reduced to 10 men, and Dussuyer’s charges were left ruing a match which—with a big more ambition—they could have won.
Defensively, Benin are well-organised; they’re packed with six footers, and players with ample experience in the French leagues, while Steve Mounie is a handful for defenders—and the most effective aerial presence of the group stage—despite bringing his Huddersfield Town form (or lack thereof) to the Nations Cup.
Mounie and Pote are both impressive physical specimens, and while neither are prolific, their aerial threat and ability to get in behind ensure they’re a handful.
Dussuyer has forged a very organised team; they beat Algeria 1-0 at home during the qualifiers and, according to football statistician Benjamin Hajji, ended the group stage with the second best expected goals against…after Morocco.
Their match on Friday wasn’t predicted to be an open free-flowing encounter, and it isn’t a huge surprised that Morocco failed to open them up…particularly after the Atlas Lions had to wait until the dying minutes to open the scoring against Namibia and South Africa, two inferior defensive set-ups.
Benin definitely rode their luck—notably when Hakim Ziyech slammed a last-minute penalty against the outside of the post—but even after having Khaled Adenon dismissed for a bizarre—and harsh—red card, Dussuyer’s 10-men troops were so well drilled that they neutralised the Lions.
This was a triumph for a limited side, a victory for strategy, for the ugly side of work in the training ground, and for the veteran coach, who’s so long been little more than wallpaper in African football, while Renard has been the star attraction.
For the first time, people had walked into the Louvre and were admiring the skirting boards.
"I am very proud of my team," Dussuyer told journalists, humbly, after the match. "We had a difficult game.
"Morocco are a very strong team, but we mentally prepared ourselves well, and luck was on our side.
"I thank my boys for the remarkable effort,” he concluded. “I think we can continue this beautiful dream."
After engineering the greatest victory in Benin’s history, and gaining a measure of revenge on the man who brought the curtain down on his brief tenure with the Ivory Coast, Dussuyer isn’t about to settle on a job well done.
Next up they’ll face a similarly physical Senegal side, but one who will hold no fear after the significant obstacles of serial-semi-finalists Ghana, holders Cameroon, and favourites Morocco have been bypassed.
“I have a group of boys with great energy,” Dussuyer concluded. “We’re never beaten from the start, we have a great mental strength.”
One of African football’s stalwarts is finally having his moment in the spotlight, and after ending Renard’s campaign…and probably his time as Morocco boss…Benin won’t be ready to rest on their laurels just yet.