When football fans talk about famous academies, we usually talk about La Masia, Clairefontaine or the Bilbao Cantera. However, at the very south of the Ivory Coast in the city of Abidjan, ASEC Mimosas sit comfortably under the radar, to most football fans anyway, as possibly the single most extensive exporter of African talent of the last generation. To put it into perspective, at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, of the 23 players called up to the Ivory Coast national side, 11 of them had came through the academy at ASEC.
Stick on the TV and switch to one of the top footballing leagues around Europe and you’re bound to encounter a player that’s made his way from the ASEC Academy. Kolo and Yaya Toure of Liverpool and Manchester City, Gervinho of Roma, Salomon Kalou of Hertha Berlin, Romaric at Bastia…Didier Zokora, Emmanuel Eboue, Siaka Tiene, Aruna Dindane and the list goes on. Between them they have hundreds, if not even approaching thousands of combined international caps and a collective trophy cabinet the envy of many but yet few people are truly aware of the club and its achievements.
ASEC Mimosas hold the world record for the longest unbeaten domestic streak in football history, going unbeaten for 108 games between 1989 and 1994 and their domestic dominance has seen them win the title 17 times since 1990, along with an African Champions League win in 1998 and an African Super Cup win in 1999, a win which was quite possibly the crowning achievement of the club.
On the 7th of February 1999, ASEC faced off against African Cup Winners Cup holders Esperance of Tunisia. ASEC had home advantage but were considered huge underdogs for the match. The team which had beaten Dynamos Harare in the Champions League no longer existed, most of the players had already moved to North Africa or Europe as was, and still is, the norm for any African player seeking success. Coach Oscar Fullone was forced into fielding a team of untried, untested youngsters none of whom were older than 18.
Nobody gave ASEC a chance, least of all the opposing team and some of their own supporters even boycotted the match, fearful of the defeat that they felt was inevitable. Chokri El Ouaer, the Esperance goalkeeper, even found time to laugh and joke with his coaches and teammates at the expense of the young ASEC players. Hindsight, however is a wonderful thing and although it meant little then, a look back at the teamsheet would give current football fans some hope as to how the result would go. Featured among the starting lineup were none other than: Boubacar Barry, Kolo Toure, Siaka Tiene, Didier Zokora, Giles Yapi Yapo and Venance Zeze as well as Aruna Dindane on the bench.
Zeze put ASEC ahead after 36 minutes and the youthful athleticism of the young ASEC team really shone through well into the second half of the match. Kolo Toure, who had been fantastic throughout the match, right up until the 87th minute turned the villain as he conceded a penalty for a handball inside the box. Esperance keeper El Ouaer traversed the length of the pitch to take and convert the penalty and the match went into extra time.
Club president Roger Ouegnin talks about the sight at the beginning of extra time in Ian Hawkeys excellent account of the history of African football ‘Feet of the Chameleon’. “I looked at the boys and they weren’t rushing to the touchline to take a drink or have a rest, there wasn’t a worried look on their faces”. It was a stark contrast to the older, more experienced Esperance team who were growing weary at the thought of extra time. The ASEC players continued their quick pass and move game into extra time much to the frustration of the Esperance players before the substitute Aruna Dindane put them into the lead before Zeze eventually put the game to bed towards the end of extra time. The golden generation was born, the careers of some of Ivory Coasts best players had arrived and the club would lift the African Super Cup for the first and only time in their history.
ASEC went on to win their domestic league 9 times in the next 10 years but could never recapture that success on a continental level. The now famous players would eventually leave for pastures new, most of them to the top leagues in Europe to clubs such as Arsenal, Rennes or Anderlecht and the up and comers such as Salomon Kalou and Gervinho would be snapped up quickly as the big clubs across Europe began to rapidly expand their scouting operations.
It’s been a quiet period for ASEC in recent years. They’ve not won a league title since 2010 and even players born in Abidjan are getting snapped up by teams such as Toulouse or St.Etienne before they even get a chance to make it to ASEC. Despite all of this though, ASEC still continue to focus heavily on the academy players and it continues to reap its rewards as they continue to produce good quality players such as Cyriac Gohi Bi of Anderlecht, Jean Seri of Pacos de Ferreira, Didier Ya Konan formerly of Hannover, and Lacina Traore.
The golden generation are long since gone and there may never be another like it at ASEC, such is the way of modern football, but it is important that teams like this continue to exist and give talented footballers from the developing world a chance to showcase their abilities on a national, continental or even international stage and the success of ASEC is a testament to the rewards of placing an emphasis on the development of grass roots football. Something that could be learned by some of the larger, more developed footballing nations.