It has been a relatively successful World Cup thus far for Africa, save a disappointing Cameroon. Nigeria, Algeria, and Ghana have all enjoyed crucial victories, edging them closer to a rare berth in the knockout round. Many of the European sides, too, have been carried by their players of African origin.
The Ivory Coast’s golden generation, enjoying their last spell on the international stage, have not gelled as expected. Led by grand statesman, Didier Drogba, and Yaya Toure, a midfield goliath that terrorizes the English game, Les Elephantes were poised to become the first African nation in this World Cup to seal progression to the knockout round with just a draw against an insipid Greece.
But Toure’s championship form for Manchester City has not continued in Brazil, leaving some in New York’s Ivorian community to question where his loyalties lie.
“African players never play the same for their European teams and their national teams,” said Cissé, a 27-year-old livery cab driver, at New Ivoire Restaurant in East Harlem, an intimate venue where loud banter in Pidgin French and the subtle spices of pepe soup create an Abidjan-esque atmosphere. “He loves his club more than his country.”
No one can question Serey Die’s commitment to the Ivorian cause after a tearful moment during the national anthem. That kind of passion has won over even foreign fans. “He goes hard!”, said Yohann Perruchoud, 24, a Swiss national who keenly follows the Ivory Coast.
Many in the packed crowed pinned their hopes on Gervinho, and, of course, Drogba, whose mere presence inspired a decisive turnaround against Japan. The first glimpses of the bearded Ivorian captain evoked a rapturous applause, akin to a royal salute to a man who helped end his country’s civil war.
Little was said of midfield enforcer Cheikh Tiote, his lazy back pass opening the gates for the Greeks to score a vital opening goal. Ivorian pace and power responded, but to no avail. “Joue, Joue!” chanted fans, often in futility as Ivorian attacks lacked verve and imagination.
At half-time, tempers frayed at the restaurant, with fans pointing fingers, raising voices, and attempting a scuffle until calmer heads intervened. The stakes were high against a team almost all Ivorians in attendance were certain could be beaten.
Substitute Wilfried Bony’s introduction inspired confidence, and his low finish from Gervinho’s square pass in the box restored the guarantee of safe passage.
It seemed conclusive, until Ecuadorian referee, Carlos Vera, gifted Greece a penalty in the 92nd minute after Giorgios Samaras appeared to trip on his own foot.
But even poor officiating, which has haunted this World Cup more than once, did not deflate the orange-clad fans as much as the players’ complacency. “They were lazy,” said Cheikh Cissé, the manager of New Ivoire.
The Greeks, said airport worker Ismael Fofana, recognized the importance of this match, whereas his countrymen did not. “They needed the same thinking,” he added.
African hopes now lie with Nigeria, Ghana, and Algeria, who themselves have difficult ties and group table scenarios to negotiate.
But, on the bright side, no one in New York or Fortaleza got bitten.