Beyond the emotive journey that was Zambia at the 2012 African Cup of Nations that set them apart as worthy winners, a hidden truth remained masked.
Cote d’Ivoire was the best team at last year’s showpiece African continental tournament.
It is they who, alongside Zambia, scored the most goals (9). They also, astonishingly, conceded no goal at all. They had the best individuals; then African Footballer of the Year Yaya Toure; his brother and club teammate Kolo Toure; Chelsea’s Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou; fellow Premier League stars Cheik Tiote and Gervinho; as well as former Premier League stars Emmanuel Eboue and Didier Zokora. In Jean Jacques Gosso and Max Gradel, they also unleashed new players who were making a name for themselves in the French Ligue 1.
Certainly, from a technical as well as tactical point of view, the Ivorians were superior. In a tournament which notoriously lacked the usual tournament favourites : Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, Cameroon and South Africa who had all failed to qualify, Ivory Coast stood with Ghana as clear favourites; even though in reality, the Elephants packed more weight.
Yaya Toure’s positioning throughout the tournament would illustrate this. He would start as a holding midfielder, but push up to attacking midfield as the game wore on and goals were required. This move would in no way affect their defensive shape, as they had more than enough quality to cover. In fact, for all the goals that they did manage to score, the Ivorians attacking quality was such that they did not require to throw masses of bodies upfront – relying on the individual qualities of their strike force to work out how to put the ball into the back of the net. This, coupled with versatility allowed for tactical flexibility.
But it wasn’t just the individuals, who on the odd occasion carried the team. Beyond Drogba’s resounding headers, Yaya Toure’s audacious free kicks and Gervinho’s mazy runs, Ivory Coast worked as a collective unit. The quality of the individuals was needed once in a while, but even so, the sum of the individuals as a whole was greater than its parts. They would combine passes and slick moves well with each other. Their was also strength in depth – Gradel and Souleymane Coulibaly could be called upon from the bench at any moment, or even from the start. Such was their strength in depth that in the final, Yaya Toure would be substituted, and Didier Ya Konan would be handed the attacking responsibility.
However, all this would not be enough to see them win it. For there was Zambia who paid homage to the departed class of 1993 in the best possible way. By winning the tournament in Gabon, so close to where the plane carrying the entourage that composed the 1993 national team had met its fatal end, they did more than any erected, consecrated and dedicated monument would ever do, and set in stone a tournament win that nobody would dare argue against, be it for moral/human reasons or tactical reasons.
Now however, with the human reasons on Zambia’s end fulfilled, Cote d’Ivoire is back with more or less the same side, albeit a better one.
For as they come into the 29th edition of the African Cup of Nations in 2013, Ivory Coast have in their ranks players who were winners all across Europe. The Toure brothers come in as English champions: Yaya Toure himself comes in again having retained his African Player of the Year crown; Eboue was a champion in Turkey; but above all, Kalou and Drogba come as reigning European Club champions.
Adding onto that will be the same supporting cast. Sol Bamba will resume his defensive partnership with Kolo Toure. Zokora will also reprise his midfield duties. PSG’s Siaka Tiene will once more flank the left of a back four with Gosso on the right. Behind them, Boubacar Barry will guard the goal as ably as he has been doing since his ascent to first choice goalkeeper.
It is in attack where, as always, they will look most frightening. Drogba needs no introductions. Flanking him however is up for debate. 12 months ago, Gervinho and Kalou were a shoe in for the job. However, Gervinho’s performances for Arsenal this season means that he will come into the tournament on the back of many unanswered questions. More so will Kalou, who’s move from Chelsea to Lille has not done the wonders it was expected to, especially considering the impact Eden Hazard’s move in the other direction has had on both sides.
This will most certainly lead to Max Gradel having a look in. The former Leeds United winger has been in sumptuous form for Saint Etienne for the past season and half. In last year’s final, he replaced Kalou and now, it seems as if the replacement may have been permanent in terms of who starts.
And beyond the burden of relying on Drogba to produce goals, Ivory Coast has more than enough firepower on the bench. In Lacina Traore, they have a striker who with 7 goals is high flying Anzhi Makhachkala’s leading goal scorer in the Russian League at the halfway point (the same tally as Cameroonian Samuel Eto’o). Also, Arouna Kone’s magnificent form for Levante last season has been carried on to Wigan Athletic this season. His versatility allows him to play either in the center or out wide, a role he performed so admirably for the Ivorians at the Nations Cup in 2010.
But certainly, the man who will trouble manager Sabri Lamouchi the most for playing time will be Wilfred Bony. The 24 year old finds himself leading the Dutch League’s goal scoring charts with 16 goals at the halfway point, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that he does not play for traditional Eredivisie giants Ajax or PSV, neither for Feyernoord or FC Twente, but at Vitesse Arnhem.
Sabri Lamouchi will surely have a selection headache, but with such quality in his ranks, it seems a pleasurable one. The Frenchman will be charged with doing what others before him failed to do. With a predecessor queue that includes the likes of Henri Michel, Vahid Halihodzic, Francis Zahoui and even Sven-Goran Eriksson, Lamouchi will attempt to do what was last done in 1992 and deliver the African trophy to the West African Nation.
That 1992 triumph still remains Ivory Coast’s sole major trophy. For a country that produces so much talent, that has been somewhat surprising and leads to comparisons with another nation that also dons Orange in its international football endeavours – the Netherlands. For just like the Netherlands, one major trophy and numerous failed finals in its illustrious history sets them as perennial underachievers.
This though, is their chance to make things right. With young talent coming through, a tournament win is required to set precedence for future dominance, just as Spain’s Euro 2008 triumph did for a country which was also until then a perennial underachiever.
However, there is also a sense that the country’s golden generation is coming to an end with nothing to show for it. The Toure brothers, Eboue, Zokora as well as Drogba form a part of a golden generation which has endured extreme highs as well as lows. Qualifying for two consecutive World Cups, they have been unlucky at being placed in the Group of Death on both occasions. But it is on the African scene that most of the heartache has occurred. Considered favourites each time, each time has been met with disappointment.
Certainly, the feeling is that especially for Didier Drogba, this is the last chance galore for him. It is he who, with his larger than life status and personality that has held the country’s football community together, even in times of turmoil such as the Laurent Gbagbo- Alasanne Ouattara fiasco. This at least ensured, that unlike most of the North African giants (and especially Egypt), politically induced unrest did not adversely affect their football.
It was also him who, in valiant losses to Argentina (2006 World Cup) and Brazil (2010 World Cup) scored his country’s solitary goal both times. However, it was also him who, in the 2006 African Cup of Nations, missed the Ivorians first penalty in the shootout in the final, a feat he would repeat in the 2012 final, be it in regulation time. On both occasions, the Ivorians lost the final.
But if inspiration is to be drawn for Drogba, it has to be from how with the same sense of feeling last season at Chelsea, he delivered. Against FC Barcelona in the first leg of the semi final, he gave his team something to hold and to defend and in the final, he brought his team back from the depths of defeat. Ultimately, it was he who scored the decisive penalty in the shootout. For Chelsea, that would earn him the fans vote for the greatest player in the club’s history. Even though he would leave for China, he had, at his time there proved to be the club’s ultimate big game player, capped with his decisive contribution when the final chance to win European Club football’s grandest prize materialised.
Now however, the Ivorians must hope that he will finally deliver a crown to go with his throne.
The narrative surrounding Ivory Coast at CAN 2013 is always going to center around Drogba. For the whole team as a whole though, this has to be the moment. Giovanni Trapattoni usually says that in football, there is joy, pain but always another chance. Ivory Coast has had the joy of producing world beaters, and qualifying for World Cups but also the pain of disappointment. Now, African Cup of Nations 2013 represents not just another chance, but probably the final chance.
Like Michael Jackson’s intention to undertake one last hurrah before finally officially retiring from the music industry, this will feel like Ivory Coast’s final chance to do something big. However, unlike Michael Jackson, the Ivorians will hope that their team does not eventually burn out before then.
This is the last chance galore for Cote d’Ivoire. This is the moment for them to walk on the moon and write their names on the stars. For Cote d’Ivoire, and especially for Didier Drogba, this is it.
**courtesy of footballsquads.co.uk
1.Boubacar ‘Copa’ Barry (K.S.C. Lokeren, Belgium)
16. Daniel Yeboah (Dijon FCO, France)
23. Badra Ali Sangaré (Séwé Sports, Cote d’Ivoire)
3 . Arthur Boka (VFB Stuggart, Germany)
4. Kolo Toure (Manchester City, England)
14. Ismael Traoré (Stade Brestois, France)
17. Siaka Tiéné (Paris Saint-Germain, France)
20. Igor Lolo (FC Kuban Krasnodar, Russia)
21. Emmanuel Eboue (Galatasaray SK, Turkey)
22. Souleymane Bamba (Trabzonspor, Turkey)
5. Didier Zokora (Trabzonspor, Turkey)
6. N’Dri Romaric (Real Zaragoza, Spain)
7. Abdul Razak (Manchester City, England)
9. Cheik Ismael Tiote (Newcastle United, England)
13. Didier Ya Konan (Hannover 96, Germany)
15. Max Gradel (AS Saint-Etienne, France)
19. Yaya Toure (Manchester City, England)
2. Arouna Kone (Wigan Athletic, England)
8. Salomon Kalou (LOSC Lille, France)
10.Kouassi Gervais “Gervinho” Yao (Arsenal, England)
11. Didier Drogba (Shanghai Shenhua, China)
12. Wilfred Bony (Vitesse Arnhem, The Netherands)
18. Lacina Traoré (Anzhi Makhachkala, Russia)