The Africa Cup of Nations final defeat on penalties to Zambia in 2012 seemed to herald the end for Ivory Coast’s greatest generation –– after a decade of trying, the Elephants’ old warhorses, Drogba, Romaric, Zokora, Barry, Boka, the Touré brothers, Keïta and Eboué had been left empty-handed once again. Along with Hassan Shehata’s Egypt, they were the greatest African team of the decade. But while Egypt won three ACN’s in a row –– including a 2006 shoot-out win against Ivory Coast –– the Ivorians got nothing. Then again, Ivory Coast did get to three two World Cups, which is more than Egypt did during that time. A team that might have otherwise lit up the 2006 and 2010 editions of the tournament, and maybe even become the first African side to reach the semi-final, was cruelly stymied by the draw each time. Argentina and the Netherlands stood in their way in Germany and two defeats sent them home early despite stirring Ivorian performances in each game. Four years later, they had the misfortune to face Portugal and Brazil, the former of whom frustrated them sufficiently to grind out a scoreless draw and then chanced upon a North Korea in disarray.
Now the ageing generation has one last chance, if not to win a trophy (the 1992 Africa Cup of Nations remains the only senior title in the country’s history), then to make their mark on the world stage. This time they have been given a far more manageable draw –– Colombia, Greece and Japan –– none of them pushovers but a great deal less onerous than in the past two tournaments. Many of the old hands are still there –– Abdul-Kader Keïta departed after the 2012 final defeat in Gabon, while coach Sabri Lamouchi left Jean-Jacques Gosso Gosso and Emmanuel Eboué out –– and they all get to keep their places in the starting eleven. There might be young blood in the overall squad but the legs on the field will not always be the freshest. Sol Bamba, after an injury scare earlier in the year, should be on hand to partner Kolo Touré in the centre of defence, a pairing that kept a clean sheet in the six games of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations but still lost. Didier Zokora, now playing for Trabzonspor in Turkey, will marshall the midfield and allow Yaya Touré to make his runs forward. Saloman Kalou provides an extra attacking edge in the middle of the park as does Toulouse’s bright young prospect Serge Aurier, a right=back who scored six goals in Ligue 1 last season. Up front there is a resurgent Gervinho and Drogba –– whatever you think of him, he has always been a lion in his national colours, a superb leader.
It’s a line-up that will fancy its chances in the three group matches and they will be grateful the toughest one, against Colombia, is not the first. The experience does not spread across the whole squad but the Ivorians do have options –– Wilfried Bony, Cheikh Tioté and Saint-Étienne’s Max Gradel, one of a number of players who have had good seasons (Yaya Touré and Gervinho too). If fatigue can be resisted, the Elephants could well do something interesting. A 10pm kick-off against Japan in the opening game will spare them the worst of the heat in Recife though they may be forced into a de facto play-off in subtropical Fortaleza against a physically strong and tactically astute Greece.
Lamouchi, in his first coaching position at 42, will be the youngest man in charge in Brazil. Since taking over two years ago he has done creditably enough, presiding over only two defeats in nineteen games, one of which came in last year’s Africa Cup of Nations to eventual winners Nigeria. Qualifying was comfortable enough, apart from a brief period of jitters late on against Senegal in the second leg of the play-off when a Moussa Sow penalty left the Senegalese just a goal away from causing an upset. They never really looked like capitalising though and an injury-time strike by Kalou put the tie beyond doubt. It may testify to the general weakness of African football that an Ivorian team that is past its peak would still be considered one of the strongest sides on the continent. Even so, there are enough players on the team (and the bench) who continue to be in flying form for their clubs that you suspect they could finally make it out of the group stages this time, though it is hard to see them getting any further than that.
Posted by Oliver Farry