There is little time left for the teams qualified for the final phase of the African Cup of Nations (CAN) to prepare for the competition which is due to open on January 13 in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The International Football Federation (FIFA) has decided that internationals must be made available to them by their club no later than Tuesday January 2, i.e. eleven days before the start of the matches. A short but crucial break for the technical staff and players.

For lack of anything better, certain coaches, such as Djamel Belmadi (Algeria), Sébastien Desabre (Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC), Hubert Velud (Burkina Faso) or Eric Chelle (Mali), began training at the end of December 2023 with incomplete staffing. “Players arrive in varying states of fitness. Some are tired because they have already played a lot at the club, others on the contrary have had little playing time and are full of doubts. We must therefore assess everyone’s physical level, but also their mental level at the moment. Every detail is important, every minute counts,” underlines Frenchman Claude Le Roy, who led several teams to the finals and won the CAN in 1988 with the Indomitable Lions.

This preparation time is all the more precious as the competition ahead is tough. Some selections favor training at home, such as Ivory Coast, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Mali or South Africa. Others preferred to emigrate: Algeria, for example, chose Togo, a country with a climate comparable to that of the Ivory Coast, while others opted for Saudi Arabia (Zambia, Cameroon ) or the United Arab Emirates (Guinea, Nigeria, Burkina, Angola and DRC) in order to benefit from high-level sports facilities and easily find opponents to play friendly matches.

“Framework too rigid”

In 2002, to prepare for the CAN which was held that year in Mali, French coach Bruno Metsu chose to stay in Dakar and settle his players in a hotel in the Senegalese capital located by the sea, where the Lions of Teranga had their habits. “The coach knew that life in isolation is not always easy to manage. He had the intelligence not to lock us into too rigid a framework and to grant us certain freedoms,” remembers former defender Ferdinand Coly. A strategy that paid off: for the first time in its history, Senegal reached the final against Cameroon, then the defending champion (0-0, 2-3 on penalties).

Bruno Metsu, who died in 2013, knew how to be demanding, but never hesitated to participate in the moments of relaxation granted to his players. “We worked a lot,” says Ferdinand Coly. It wasn’t always fun, there was competition, but the coach knew how to let go: we had leave, he organized meals around the swimming pool. All these accumulated details made the working atmosphere pleasant and this contributed to our good performance. »

Other technicians prefer to install their players in a real bubble, not allowing the public to attend any training session and refusing any media requests. But it’s a risky bet. “A competition like the CAN generates pressure,” warns French technician Claude Le Roy. If you make your training site an entrenched camp, and you spend your time monitoring the players’ every move, they risk arriving stressed in the competition. They also need to be able to think of something else. Even if it means cracking down if some people stray too far from the framework. »

“A beneficial joy”

It is this method, combining rigor and relaxation, which made the success of the Frenchman Hervé Renard, former deputy of Claude Le Roy in Ghana. The man who is now coach of the French women’s football team has won the CAN twice, in 2015 with Ivory Coast and in 2012 with Zambia, to everyone’s surprise. “That year we didn’t have the best lineup in the tournament, and preparation played a very important role. I chose Johannesburg as the training location because it was a place that my players knew well. We had good quality friendly matches, which brought even more confidence to the group,” remembers the Savoyard.

The experience acquired in Ghana allowed him to better define the details to which African players can be sensitive, such as the almost permanent presence of music, on the bus, in the locker rooms and even during certain meals. “Preparation without music, for me, is inconceivable. Music brings energy and beneficial joy to the working atmosphere. If the players are happy, it will show on the pitch,” believes Hervé Renard.

But the good mood that can reign during preparation is no defense against bad news. Algeria has just had the bitter experience of this, recording on January 1 the injury withdrawal of Amine Gouiri (Stade Rennais) during the brief gathering organized in Sidi Moussa, near Algiers, before leaving for Togo . The Algerian striker will probably not be the last to have to give up the CAN.