By John James*
One day Côte d’Ivoire will lift the cup, said captain Didier Drogba, shortly after the team’s arrival in South Africa, though I may not be in the team to see it. Côte d’Ivoire are used to the pressure, they’re used to being called favourites, they’re used to being the continent’s top under-achievers, and they’re used to the Cup of Nations. The core of the team – mainly academiciens – graduates of Africa’s first great football academy at Asec Mimosas – remains unchanged. So don’t expect any surprises.
There’s something predictable about The Elephants – they won every qualifying match before last year’s Afcon, they won every match in the finals before the penalty shoot-out with Zambia, and they beat a respectable Senegalese side home and away to qualify this time around. While others have slipped up, failed to qualify and broken up, Côte d’Ivoire have stayed pretty solid. Since the close of the World Cup of South Africa they’ve only lost two matches – the final with Zambia and a friendly with Poland.
The analysts have done their best to explain the Ivorian failures in the Cup of Nations – unfortunate in 2006 (beaten on penalties in the final by Egypt), too attack-focused (2008 – well beaten by winners Egypt in the semi-finals), too many egos/shell-shock of Togo bus-attack (2010) or too defensive (2012). But having seen all but one home match in the last five years the play has been largely consistent – exceptional players, usually confident about scoring, but lax and lacking fluidity.
Each coach has tried to tweak – Sven Goran Eriksson brought the passionate Didier Zokora into defence alongside Kolo after Bamba’s disastrous quarter-final against Algeria. That seemed to work well, as last year’s finals testified – they didn’t concede a single goal, not bad for a team more famous for its attack. But new coach Sabri Lamouchi has brought back Bamba to defence. Otherwise, not much has changed – Lamouchi experimented with the entertaining wild-card Kader Keita (aka Popito) before dropping him entirely. Old regulars Arouna Kone and Romaric are back from the cold, while fresher players – Max Gradel, Lacina Traore and Abdul Razak are starting to get a look in. Out goes Gosso-Gosso whose heart-on-sleeve combativeness made him the star of last year’s finals, at least for Ivorian fans.
Speaking of fans, Ivorians know the script by now. They start off in mid-January saying ‘Those guys will let us down again so I’m not watching’. Pretty soon the passion builds in Abidjan and people start saying ‘Maybe this will finally be our year’. The place goes crazy, and then comes the huge let-down. Though they have shown an aggressive side – reacting badly to defeat against Algeria in 2010 by attacking some people linked to the players, they have also shown generosity as well – last year, despite their unexpected defeat to Zambia, the tearful players got a heroes’ welcome in Abidjan – by some accounts larger than the Zambian airport crowd. It took the team most of the day to work their way through the city to the team hotel and the day was declared a national holiday.
Is there any reason to believe this year will be Côte d’Ivoire’s year? Well, there are few things that stand out – victory against Egypt last week was far from convincing but they did the job. The new coach hasn’t created a team that looks too different from the one that played under the unfortunate Francois Zahoui. Perhaps Côte d’Ivoire are humbler – and from what I’ve seen there seems to be a genuine thawing of the ice between the big egos that have clashed in the past. Still, I think the defence could be in better shape – Kolo Toure doesn’t get as much football as he once did and on the flanks Eboue and Tiene both look well past their best.
Vahid Halilhodžić, now coach of Algeria (who ended his run as Côte d’Ivoire coach in 2010) used to say in his Yugsolav flavoured French ‘great players, bad team’ – confessing that it was only after Angola 2010 that he realised there were such deep divisions in the squad. The fault-lines have never been clear – in the Ivorian media it was seen as Kolo v Drogba, or Yaya v Drogba. When the team were last in South Africa, for a friendly with the host nation in 2011, Yaya and the then captain Didier Zokora had a big row in the tunnel about who was jealous of whom. Still, some of these disputes have been hyped by the local media, and the bonhomie between the Ivorian ‘cadres’ as the regular players are known has appeared good recently – perhaps the great Elephants are mellowing with age.
With so many star names, most people know which players to look out far – and lesser known players struggle to shine. Yaya Toure didn’t look exceptional 12 months ago, but we know he can dominate the midfield. Gervinho tends to do well with the greater space he sees in national games. Among the younger players, Gradel has looked useful for me. Special mention I think needs to go to goalkeeper Copa Barry – five years ago Ivory Coast were mocked for their goalkeeping, but Copa has become a firm favourite with the fans, and the Tupac look-alike has saved their skin more times than he’s given credit for.
The competition will be a big test for coach Lamouchi – a highly controversial choice as coach. He replaced Francois Zahoui who had a good standing with the fans and came so close to winning the cup. Zambia of course had a great backstory last year – but a Côte d’Ivoire win would have meant a huge deal for a country coming out of a conflict, but also for a top African side willing to put faith in a national coach. Perhaps he should have made changes in the final, but few faulted him. His salary was paltry compared to Eriksson, put fans were prepared to see him replaced by a bigger name, with a bit more experience. Out of the blue, the Federation plumped for the completely untested Lamouchi – the players seemed mystified while the fans talked of a boycott. Things have settled down now, but unless he wins the cup, there’s little love for him in the Ivorian sporting media.
On paper the Elephants still have as a good a claim as any – Drogba remains the continent’s most high-profile player and knows this would be the final achievement in a remarkable career. Yaya Toure is officially Africa’s best. At some point, as Drogba says, it will be Côte d’Ivoire’s turn. For all the hype, as Drogba, Kolo and Eboue head to retirement, others will and are coming, so expect this team to be near the top for a while yet.
Côte d’Ivoire play their first match against Togo today, kick off 15.00 GMT
* Anglo-Ivorian John James was the BBC correspondent in Côte d’Ivoire from 2007-2012 and set-up the Elephantsonline.com website.