For the fifth consecutive African Cup of Nations (ACN), Ivory Coast have been tagged as favourites. It is a mantle they have not worn that well, for since 2006, they have failed to live up to expectations, despite going close on two occasions. Despite having arguably the best team outside of Europe and Latin America – they are currently ranked 14th in FIFA’s list – they have fallen short at the final hurdle.
This year may be the last chance for a squad that contains some richly-talented players who are plying their trade at some of Europe’s best clubs. The so-called “Golden Generation” is getting old: Core d’Ivoire’s greatest player of all-time, Didier Drogba, is 34 and turning out in smoggy China. The Toure’s, Kolo and YaYa, are 31 and 29 respectively. Didier Zakora is 32 and Emmanuel Eboue is now 29. The younger talent includes the profligate Gervinho of Arsenal, who has good reason to set the record straight in 2013. It was his missed penalty that gave Zambia the ACN in 2012.
This may be Drogba’s last ACN and he will want to go out on a high. He agrees with the pundits that Ivory Coast are the favourites, but like his coach, Sabri Lamouchi, he knows that a group containing Togo, Tunisia and Algeria, is a tough call.
Difficult groups on the world stage have prevented Ivory Coast from making more of a splash in Germany (2006) and South Africa (2010), the only occasions that the country has qualified for the World Cup finals. Getting drawn against Argentina and the Netherlands in 2006, and Brazil and Portugal four years later, was bad luck, but they won plenty of friends, if not points!
The Elephants’ (don’t you just love these nicknames) squad has not changed much since last year. Of the 23 players on duty in South Africa, 17 were in the last competition. Glancing at the clubs they play for just tells you they have some quality – six come from the English Premier, five from France and then a couple here and there from Russia, Germany, Turkey and Belgium. Only six of the 23 are over 30, which suggests that those who have fallen by the wayside since the last tournament were long in the tooth.
Ivory Coast are not just about surging midfielders and clinical finishers, either. In 2012, they did not concede a goal in the finals during normal play. They beat Sudan (1-0), Burkina Faso (2-0), Angola (2-0), Equatorial Guinea (3-0) and Mali (1-0), and drew 0-0 with Zambia before losing on penalties. Ironically, Drogba, who scored that all-important spot-kick in the Champions League final for his old club, failed to convert in the shoot-out. To qualify for 2013, they beat Senegal home and away, 6-2 on aggregate.
With key players nearing the veteran stage, the orange-clad elephants will be hoping for a final hurrah. They will be very difficult to stop, but how often has that been said in the past seven years?