Al Ahli's Kessie focused on leading Cote d'Ivoire into home AFCON final

As Franck Kessie stood over the ball, a picture of concentration, the pressure on his 27-year-old shoulders was immense.

On the line was a place in the quarter-finals of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, a feat that looked unlikely just a few days prior as Cote d’Ivoire, the host nation no less, battled to even progress from Group A.

In the end, they squeezed through as one of the best third-placed teams, and their reward was a clash with African heavyweights, Senegal.

As it was, Kessie had already scored one spot-kick, with just a handful of minutes remaining, to send the match into extra time.

But now, with the ball placed on the spot, the pressure had risen an extra few degrees. This was not a penalty to save a match; this was a penalty to win the match.

After Senegalese defender Moussa Niakhate missed an earlier spot-kick, the Ivorians remained flawless, meaning Kessie was tasked with the responsibility of the fifth and deciding penalty.

Standing in front of him was the imposing figure of his Al Ahli teammate, Edouard Mendy. As teammates in Jeddah with the Roshn Saudi League club, Mendy would know all too well Kessie’s penalty preferences.

It only added to the tension.

“When you know the kind of guy Edouard Mendy is, especially in a game like this one, Senegal versus Ivory Coast, it was a penalty with big pressure,” Kessie said ahead of his team's semi-final clash with DR Congo on Wednesday evening.

“It has not been easy to find the good formula on how to score. There was also the pressure from the fans - that was a positive pressure too. They were just waiting for delivery, and thank God, we scored the goal.

“I spoke with Edouard and with some friends I have in the Senegal team and tried to cheer them up, and they wished me good luck for the rest of competition.”

Luck, if you believe in it, has been on Cote d’Ivoire’s side this tournament after their great escape from the group stage when it looked like they were headed for a shock exit as the host nation.

An opening day win over Guinea-Bissau got their campaign off to a winning start, but that was followed up by a loss to Nigeria and a shock 4-0 defeat to Equatorial Guinea.

It was enough, just, to see them through as the last of the best third-placed teams, narrowly ahead of Ghana, who inexplicably conceded twice in injury time to Mozambique to draw 2-2. The result eliminated Ghana and, in the process, saved the skin of the host nation.

“It’s football,” Kessie said matter-of-factly. “When the final whistle didn’t blow, the game is not over. You always have to believe. After our 4-0 defeat everyone thought we were going to be out of the competition.”

Cote d’Ivoire followed that up with the penalty-shootout victory over Senegal, and then with more late drama against Mali. Simon Adingra’s 90th-minute equaliser sent the match to extra time before Oumar Diakite struck in the 122nd minute to send the near 40,000-capacity crowd into raptures.

“We then gave everything…to win and to move forward,” Kessie said. “We were able to take our chance to go through to keep up the good work.”

As one of the most experienced players in the Cote d’Ivoire team, with more than 70 caps to his name, Kessie is looking to use his vast know-how in a nurturing way with his more inexperienced teammates, some of whom are experiencing the suffocating pressure of the AFCON for the first time.

“It’s been 10 years [that] I’ve played for the national team,” the central midfielder said. “I’m one of the oldest here, so I try to bring my experience as much as I can.

“There are also the big brothers in the team who bring their experience too to share with the younger [players].”

With another capacity crowd of 60,000 expected at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium in Abidjan on the south-east coast of the country, the pressure on Kessie’s shoulders, and those of his teammates, will again be immense as Cote d’Ivoire chase a place in the final against either South Africa or Nigeria.

But having survived earlier scares in the tournament, the two-time AFCON champions are now riding a wave of momentum that they hope will take them all the way to a third continental title.