Labeled “the best team in Africa” in the lead-up to the World Cup and touted as the continent’s strongest hope of claiming the title on home soil, much is expected of the Ivory Coast this summer. However, a tepid showing in January’s Africa Cup of Nations – which saw the team eliminated at the hands of Algeria in the quarter-finals – cast doubt over the ability of this talented group of individuals to play as a unit, with Bosnian Coach Valid Halilhodzic being replaced at the helm by Sven Goran Eriksson in late March.
It has, however, been argued that the dismissal of Halilhodzic was deeply unjust, such was the conviction with which The Elephants qualified for South Africa. Eight victories and just one defeat in 12 qualifying games had seen the Ivory Coast gain a momentum and cohesion that this “golden generation” has, at times, struggled to find. Despite possessing several world-class stars (Drogba, Kalou, Gervinho and the Toure brothers being the most recognisable names), this group of players has continually and frustratingly choked on the big stage when silverware has been well within reach. The 2008 Africa Cup of Nations – when the team was so dominant during the group phase and quarter-finals before imploding in the last four against Egypt – is perhaps the best example of how this team, which should have asserted a greater dominance on African football over the last five or six years, has failed to produce it’s best performances when under pressure.
Fans of The Elephants will be hoping that Eriksson can be the manager to finally get the best out of this richly gifted team, with qualification from what is surely the tournament’s “Group of Death” being the Swede’s minimum requirement this summer. Should the team progress from the first stage, a likely last 16 clash with Spain would provide the players with a prominent stage on which to showcase their abilities, even if advancing any further than a tie with the tournament favourites would perhaps be a bridge too far.
In recent times Ivory Coast have played a loose 4-3-3 formation which sees Cheick Tiote, Didier Zokora and Yaya Toure form an extremely robust and defensively-minded central midfield trio, with the quick and skillful wide pairing of Gervinho and Salomon Kalou providing the service for the team’s talismanic centre-forward, Chelsea’s Didier Drogba. However, the system is not without its weak points, with goalkeeper Boubacar Barry and centre-half Sol Bamba having proved themselves liabilities on occasion in the past. Indeed, defensive application and concentration have not been the side’s strong points in years gone by and could again be The Elephants’ undoing in South Africa unless, that is, Eriksson takes the time to instill a greater ethic of organisation and focus into his back line.
Although the Ivory Coast is clearly a dynamic and capable international side, their reputation as “bottlers” on the big stage, the huge expectations they have been saddled with, an incredibly difficult draw and the tendency for Drogba to become frustrated and withdrawn when the chips are down could all conspire to create a time-bomb which might just detonate and destroy the mood of optimism surrounding the team in the process. All the pieces are in place for a succesful campaign for the Ivorians, but, unfortunately for The Elephants, so are the ingredients for self-destruction.
Probable starting XI: Barry (KSC Lokeren); Eboue (Arsenal), Bamba (Hibernian), K Toure (Manchester City), Tiene (Valenciennes); Tiote (FC Twente), Zokora (Sevilla), Y Toure (Barcelona); Gervinho (Lille), Drogba (Chelsea), Kalou (Chelsea)
The Road to South Africa: 1st in CAF Qualifying Third Round Group E
World Ranking: 27th