Ivory Coast are neither Africa’s top-ranked football team nor do they have its strongest pedigree. However, no representative from the World Cup host continent is considered so full of promise as the Elephants.
With a new coach, veteran Sven-Goran Eriksson, and a spine of world-class players starting with striker extraordinaire Didier Drogba, the West Africans are thought to be the most complete challengers capable of the long-predicted possibility of an African team reaching the World Cup semifinals.
The fitness level of captain Drogba, who revealed an ongoing hernia issue in April but didn’t miss a beat with his club, is essential to this challenge, which kicks off in a brutal Group G against Portugal, Brazil and North Korea.
The always-dangerous Chelsea man is a massive presence for his national team, and he is the one essential to Eriksson’s cause. Beyond that, much depends on the well-travelled Swede, who took over from the sacked Vahid Halilhodzic following a quarterfinal exit in the Africa Cup of Nations in January.
He can call on a host of footballers playing regularly at Europes biggest clubs — a relative rarity for Africa’s representatives this summer.
Drogba’s clubmate Salomon Kalou, Lille winger Gervinho and Marseilles Bakary Kone all offer nimble options up front. Sevilla’s Arouna Kone and Aruna Dindane of Portsmouth are more traditional target men.
Didier Zokora, also of Sevilla, and Barcelona’s Yaya Toure form a stylish partnership in the centre of midfield, while English Premier League duo Kolo Toure, older brother of Yaya, and Emmanuel Eboue anchor the backline.
Most of these veteran club campaigners also gained valuable experience at the Elephants debut World Cup four years ago in Germany.
Drawn into the ‘Group of Death’ with the Netherlands, Argentina and Serbia and Montenegro, they showed equal parts naivety and determination by going behind to two early goals in all three matches yet coming back to score in each.
The 3-2 victory over the Eastern Europeans in the last match without the suspended Drogba earned them their first World Cup victory, but given their potential, the trip was considered frustrating.
This worrying habit of letting concentration lapse was again in full evidence at the Cup of Nations earlier this year when they gave up the lead twice against Algeria in the last eight, including a soft equaliser in injury time after Abdel-Kader Keita seemed to have scored a dramatic winner in the 89th minute.
And Algeria made Hameur Bouazzas winner two minutes into extra—time hold up as the Elephants staggered under the weight of expectation.
However, Ivory Coast showed all of their talent earlier in the tournament in their 3-1 dismantling of Ghana in the group stage. They also breezed through qualifying with remarkable consistency, losing not a single match.
Certainly the side will have confidence that they can go far this summer. We think we can do well in South Africa and win matches,” said Drogba.
This is how the whole team feels. With the experience we gained in 2006, we will do much better this time. Perhaps we can make the quarterfinals and then semifinals,” he said.
The coach: Sven-Goran Eriksson, 62, was a well-travelled club coach when he took over the England national team in 2001. The Swede had led Swedish club Gothenburg to the UEFA Cup and had also found success with Benfica in Portugal and Lazio in Italy. Once he was appointed to lead the Three Lions, he took them to the quarterfinals of three major tournaments in succession: the 2002 and 2006 World Cups along with the 2004 European Championships.
After a short spell with Manchester City, he had an unhappy run as the coach of the Mexico national team at the start of qualifying for South Africa 2010. He was only named as manager of the Elephants at the end of March after Dutchman Guus Hiddink had been strongly linked with the job.
The star: Explosive Chelsea target man Didier Drogba is the focal point of both the Ivory Coast attack and team. The 32-year-old captain is the Elephants’ all-time top scorer with 43 goals, and he may be eyeing South Africa as his last dance on the world’s biggest stage.
Drogba first came to prominence with Marseille before a big-money move to Jose Mourinhos Chelsea in 2004. Since then he has gone from strength to strength, leading his national team to the 2006 World Cup and the final of the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations. He won the African Player of the Year award in 2006 and again in 2009.
Keywords: 2010 FIFA World Cup