How will Ivory Coast’s ‘golden generation’ define World Cup success?
Always the bridesmaids, never the bride. Ivory Coast have always come ever so close to a trophy in the Africa Cup of Nations, but their World Cup runs have been far more challenging. This year is the swansong of the golden generation, but what will define success for them at this year’s tournament? By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
How do you define success for a group of players who should have won so much but turned up empty-handed time and time again? Would an exit from the round of 16 be enough? Or is there a belief that, considering so many chokes, perhaps fate will be on their side for once?
Out of all the African teams competing at this year’s World Cup, Ivory Coast boasts some of the most impressive talent in one unit. There are individual stars who have racked up plaudits and who will be remembered for their greatness as individuals for years to come. But the team has far too often failed.
Togo striker Emmanuel Adebayor has previously lambasted the team for their consistent failure, saying they lack togetherness.
"I never trust them. They are the country that will always let you down. I know all of them from the bench to the manager. Sabri Lamouchi [their coach] is my very good friend,” Adebayor said.
"How come for the last four or five years they have not won the African Cup of Nations? They have got the best striker in Europe in Didier Drogba. They have got the best midfielder today, Yaya Toure. You've got one of the best strikers in the league today, the one that plays at Swansea, Wilfried Bony. You have all of those players,” he lamented.
Ivory Coast's quarter-final in the Africa Cup of Nations last year came against the eventual winners - Nigeria. But that's not the only time they came up short. In 2006, they lost to Egypt on penalties in AFCON, they lost the semi-final in 2008, then in the quarterfinals in 2010 and in the final in 2012. How is it possible that a group of players so supremely talented, so incredibly enchanting, can keep on losing when it comes to crunch time, over and over again? Adebayor believes that the wealth of individual superstars is exactly the problem.
"But the thing is, are they going to be collective enough? I don't know. I am not an Ivorian. They will be talking, laughing and enjoying themselves, but when the time comes, they will forget about their job.
"There's no togetherness. Everyone wants to be the hero. Everybody wants to be the one to finish on a high, so the folks remember them for what I have done, not for what we have done as a generation, nor for what we have done as team. Everyone wants to be like a hero and that is what is killing Ivory Coast."
That sounds like a fairly harsh judgement. When The Elephants went crashing out of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Drogba was there for his teammates, picking them up and giving them a few back pats of encouragement.
“It’s okay,” he might have been saying.
But is it okay? Is it okay that a team that should have gone on to become one of Africa’s most famous, most entertaining, most endearing have failed time and time again? They could have had the world at their feet, but they squandered that opportunity almost like the South African cricket team squandered their World Cup chances.
This World Cup will be the current generation’s last chance to leave an impression. Much of the focus has been on the aging Elephants, but the team itself might view the continuity as an advantage. Adebayor might think that there is no unity, but some of the bonds of these players go back over 20 years. The Toure Brothers, Didier Zokora, Salomon Kalou and Gervinho are all graduates of the ASEC Abidjan academy. Zokora and Kolo played in the same team there.
“We have an amazing squad of players and we all think it is about time we reach our full potential. In the last two World Cups and in the African Cup of Nations, we have been disappointing. We haven’t gone as far as we should have," Yaya said.
But why has that been the case? The midfield ace can’t answer.
“That’s the question everyone in the Ivory Coast wants an answer to. Sometimes you need something a little bit more than 11 very good players if you want to win the biggest trophies. You have to have character or luck or something a little bit different,” he added.
Their past World Cup groups have been tough. In 2006, they came up against Argentina, the Netherlands and Serbia and, in 2010, they had to face Portugal, North Korea and Brazil. This year has been far kinder. Colombia, Greece and Japan should allow them a passage into the next round. Anything less than that will be nothing short of catastrophic, but scars of failures past can live with teams for a while, bogging them down and draining self-belief when push comes to shove.
“When I look around and see Drogba, Kalou, Gervinho, Zokora and Wilfried Bony, I can only be filled with confidence. Why we haven’t gone on to win a trophy is something I really can’t understand. We want and we hope we make it up this time, because some of us haven’t got a lot of time left,” Toure says.
Toure is right. The World Cup will be the swansong for many great men. It will also be the last chance to answer the burning question of why failure has followed them so often. They are a close-knit team who have done more than just play sport and from that, they should draw strength.
Prior to their first World Cup, then coach Henri Michel lamented: "They are carrying more than their fair share of baggage. They believe that peace hinges on them."
They would eventually qualify for the 2006 World Cup in what proved to be watershed moment for the country. A fragmented country was united through their achievement. Drogba begged for the warring factions to surrender their arms. Drogba, ever the statesman, reminded everyone that the team represented Ivorian society in unity. A week later, a ceasefire was announced.
Perhaps, then, it would be fair to say that, despite their failures on the global stage, this generation of players has already achieved success. Burdened with more than the usual expectations, they have managed to achieve more off the field than on it. That in itself is something very few teams can boast with. It is also something very few teams have had to do.
Failure on the pitch has been gut-wrenching for the team, but the public do not doubt their willingness to perform. Success at this year’s World Cup should simply be defined by giving and doing their best, and whatever results might come from that will be a luxury. DM
Photo: Picture taken on 03 February 2013 shows players of Ivory Coast's national soccer team (front row, L-R) Gervinho, captain Didier Drogba, Ismael Cheick Tiote, Didier Zokora and Siaka Tiene; (back row, L-R) Yaya Toure, Romaric, goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, Souleymane Bamba, Emmanuel Eboue and Salomon Kalou during the Africa Cup of Nations 2013 quarter final soccer match between the Ivory Coast and Nigeria at Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa. Team Ivory Coast will face Colombia, Greece and Japan in Group C of the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil. EPA/STRINGER