Côte d’Ivoire is the top-ranked team in Africa, it’s anchored by the continent’s best player and boosted by a perfect run in qualifying and it’s also the favourite to win the African Cup of Nations (Afcon).
The star-studded squad, which has underperformed in the past, now has to prove its number one ranking.
Without an African title for 20 years and following disappointing performances at the last two Cup of Nations and the 2010 World Cup, Côte d’Ivoire is approaching a last chance scenario for some its leading players — especially Chelsea striker Didier Drogba.
The 33-year-old forward who has so often led the Elephants’ charge at the African Cup won’t have a better chance to claim a continental title with former winners Egypt, Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa all absent.
Drogba leads an impressive forward line for Ivory Coast, alongside Chelsea teammate Salomon Kalou and Arsenal winger Gervinho. Fellow veteran Kolo Toure forms the heart of the defence.
Yet Côte d’Ivoire’s success may depend on whether Kolo’s younger brother, midfielder Yaya Toure, can take his dominant form for English Premier League team Manchester City onto the fields in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.
Yaya Toure was voted Africa’s 2011 player of the year and there’s little argument that he is currently the continent’s outstanding player. He anchors the impressive line-up, which includes players from the top leagues in England, France and Germany.
But as Côte d’Ivoire has discovered before with its recent failures, culminating in a surprising quarterfinal exit at the 2010 tournament, Africa’s championship doesn’t always suit the Europe-based stars.
“We hope this year will be our year,” Yaya Toure said. “It’s always difficult. We fell three times. It is so difficult. We have all the players playing in Europe. We know Africa is different, the weather, the fields.
“We have to fire. Quality is not enough to win the African Cup of Nations. If you speak about quality, the Côte d’Ivoire has fantastic quality. We need the fighting spirit because you know Africa is so difficult, so hard.”
Kolo Toure conceded Ivory Coast had undoubtedly “struggled” at the Cup of Nations, despite its talented group of players.
After the failure at the African Cup in Angola and a first-round exit at the 2010 World Cup, Ivory Coast turned to former international Francois Zahoui to coach the squad after a string of foreign managers.
That appeared to be the right decision as under Zahoui the Ivorians produced a perfect qualifying campaign for the African Cup, winning six out of six games to head to the tournament as the form team — as well as the top-ranked team — in Africa.
Warm-up wins over Tunisia and Libya in the final run-in to the African Cup underlined Ivory Coast’s status as obvious favourite for a first continental title since its only previous success in 1992. The expectation is great.
“The pressure is normal,” Kolo Toure said, denying the favourites tag would weigh down the Ivorians. “Every time Ivory Coast plays a tournament everybody expects us to be the winning the team. For us, the pressure is normal. We are relaxed. We have prepared for the tournament well. We are ready to go there and make a show.”
Drogba may not have many more African Cups left, while Kolo Toure is also heading toward the end of his career. They are part of a strong generation for Côte d’Ivoire that has not lived up to its promise yet in international football — another heavy load for the squad to carry.
“I’m 30-years-old and most of the team are 30. For us, we just need to now win this tournament,” Kolo Toure said. “That is the only thing missing in our record. We have been in the World Cup twice. We know winning World Cup is difficult. If we don’t win [the African Cup] it will bad thing for us.”
Côte d’Ivoire will be boosted by their tournament group, which appears easier than that of main title rival Ghana.
The Elephants would expect to beat Angola, Burkina Faso and Sudan in Group B, while Ghana has to deal with a dangerous Mali team in Group D alongside Botswana and Guinea, another tricky customer which beat out Nigeria in qualifying.
But as the top-ranked team and the favourite — and without big guns Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria — Côte d’Ivoire also knows that it is the main target for the other teams. Everyone will be going all out to beat Ivory Coast.
“We have to respect everyone and play our best and that is the only way we can win the competition,” Kalou said. “We are working. That is reason why we are here. We want to win the competition.
We have to be ready to sacrifice all our energy, our time to go to the end.
“The only way of putting ourselves in trouble is not paying attention to a team.”
Côte d’Ivoire opens against Sudan, then faces Burkina Faso and Angola, and will surprise many if it doesn’t ultimately make the trip to Libreville for the final on February 12. Another failure would almost certainly be a bigger shock than the previous ones. — Sapa-AP