With this being the first World Cup on African soil in the competition’s illustrious 80-year history, much of the talk in the build-up to the tournament centred around the various prospects of the six countries from the continent taking part in South Africa. With many hoping, somewhat unrealistically, to see an African World Champion in 2010, large swathes of the media identified the Ivory Coast as the most likely nation to make a sustained bid for the game’s most prestigious title. However, on the eve of The Elephants’ opening group game against Portugal, the claims that Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side are “the best in Africa” and capable of reaching the latter stages of this summer’s tournament are, I would argue, far-fetched and relatively ill thought-out.
Since emerging as a young and dynamic squad at the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, this “golden generation” of Ivorian players has, despite what some quarters of the European media may have you believe, underachieved at the majority of the critical junctures they have been faced with over the last four years. Disappointingly for a group of players containing such excellent individual talents as Didier Drogba, Didier Zokora, Salomon Kalou, Emmanuel Eboue and the Toure brothers, the Ivory Coast have failed to stamp any sort of authority on the African game, let alone come to make a significant impact on the world stage.
Maybe I could be accused of being overly harsh, but even CAN 2006 – the tournament that established this generation’s sizeable reputation – saw the Ivorians underwhelm despite finishing as runners-up to the hosts. An unconvincing 1-0 victory over Morocco was followed by a narrow win against Libya, with Henri Michel’s team convincingly beaten 3-1 by the Egyptians in the final group game. It then took a penalty shoot-out to overcome Cameroon and a scrappy 1-0 to squeeze past a poor Nigerian side before the Ivorians eventually produced a battling performance against Egypt in the final, only to go out in their second shoot-out of the competition.
Later that same year The Elephants’ embarked on the first World Cup adventure in their history, only to be drawn in a hugely difficult group alongside Argentina, the Netherlands and Serbia and Montenegro. Despite being dumped out in the first round, Michel’s side gave an good account of themselves and enhanced their reputation with decent showings in defeat against the Dutch and the Argentines and a debut World Cup finals victory over the Eastern Europeans.
However, the progress that was made in Germany was lost two years later in Ghana during the 2008 Cup of Nations where, after a confident start to the tournament, the team was dismantled and cruelly exposed by Egypt (yet again) in the semi-finals, Gerard Gili’s side eventually finishing fourth and missing out on arguably this group of players’ best chance of silverware to date.
Since the disappointment of 2008, this Ivory Coast team has, it could be said, regressed further still. A 3-1 victory over Ghana in the group stage was the only highlight of an otherwise turgid campaign in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations, a competition which also saw a 0-0 draw with Burkina Faso and a shambolic defensive performance leading to elimination at the hands of a very average Algeria in the quarter-finals.
The coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, was duly dismissed, and the team now enter into their second consecutive World Cup on the back of a period of instability under the stewardship a mercenary manager in the shape of Eriksson and with serious doubts over the fitness of their talisman, Drogba. Ivory Coast may very well be seen as Africa’s great hope this summer, but in reality it has not been plain sailing for a group of players of whom so much has been expected over the last four or five years.
So, if The Elephants’ have underachieved so drastically in recent times, what are the reasons behind these serial disappointments? Perhaps first and foremost in the list of issues has been the perceived inability of the players to gel together and play as a functional team, lacking overall effectiveness and descending, at times, into what Halilhodzic once described as “organised chaos”. Indeed, when watching the Ivory Coast play it quickly becomes evident that there is a lack of tactical organisation, a disjointed team unit held loosely together by the individual ability of a small number of players at any given time. As I’m sure you’ll agree, that is hardly the blueprint required for long-term success in the international game.
There is also argument which suggests that there is an over-reliance on the substantial abilities of Drogba, with the talents of the other players in this “golden generation” having been over-hyped. Whilst the Chelsea striker is undoubtedly world-class and Yaya Toure could possibly be considered to be in a similar bracket in his role as a defensive midfielder, the likes of Zokora, Eboue, Kalou, Gervinho and Kolo Toure have proved maddeningly inconsistent at the top level, superb on their day and yet all too often flattering to deceive on the big stage.
If The Elephants are to have any chance of emerging from what is an exceptionally tricky group for them in South Africa, all of their big names will have to unify and excel together within a well-structured collective framework. The raw ability is there for the Ivory Coast to make a mark on the tournament, but I fear that what may be this “golden generation’s” last realistic shot at an international title could slip through their fingers in a flurry of disorganisation and dislocated football. They are supposed to be the standard-bearers for a continent, but don’t be surprised if it all ends in bitter disappointment for the West Africans.