Crossroads for Drogba and co

2012. Two teams, two penalties, one talisman, very different results.

 

When Didier Drogba took the decisive penalty for Chelsea in the Allianz Arena in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich it was the decisive strike and seemed one thing: destiny. Yet three months earlier he stepped up to the spot against Zambia in the Cup of Nations final for Cote d’Ivoire and put the ball in the stands. It was a shattering miss in a match the Elephants seemed destined to lose.

Drogba and Salomon Kalou, are still striving, along with the likes of the Touré brothers and Emmanuel Eboué, to lead their country to the trophy they were supposedly destined to land, that would put the seal on the golden generation.

The 2013 Nations Cup in South Africa will be the last chance saloon for this group. They’ll be favourites, and rightly so. FIFA currently ranks them first among African nations, ahead of Ghana largely due to their record in friendlies.

The 'Elephants' were favourites to win the last four tournaments only to fall short each time. The cycle started with the runners-up to 2006 hosts Egypt, and was followed with fourth in Ghana two years later, and made a surprise 2010 quarter-finals exit against Algeria. The favourites tag is not one they’re comfortable with.

It only adds to the frustrations of their ageing stars that both final defeats came in penalty shootouts after 120 goalless minutes.

Tournaments don’t bring out the best in the Cote d’Ivoire. For some reason they go into their shell. In the last Nations Cup they were consistently conservative, not conceding a goal in six games, absorbing pressure and waiting for mistakes.

In the final Zambia simply did not make them. Coached by Francois Zahoui, his safety-first policy turned out to be an enormous risk; without style it was victory or nothing, and it turned out to be nothing.

The problems in the major tournaments have been consistent. There is a continued lack of creativity from midfield, despite the presence of the brilliant Yaya Toure, and their wingers can be particularly wasteful in the final third.
 
The Cote d’Ivoire do rely too much on the wide players for attacking drive. They are both excellent at dribbling but not particularly adept passers. Gervinho, in particular, has an amazing tendency to go on a good run then fail to do anything with his final ball. It’s a fault that has also been highlighted in the English Premier League with Arsenal.

Drogba has been and still is central to everything. Team captain and most potent weapon, he’s also the oldest player. He missed a sitter 10 minutes from the end of the 2006 final and then missed a penalty in the shoot-out.

The pressure on the squad is enormous.

"This may be the last chance for this awesome generation and if the players are able to bring home the trophy it would be a tremendous gift for the entire nation," says the latest Cote d’Ivoire coach Sabri Lamouchi.

Drogba also believes South Africa may be the last-chance saloon for him and other 30-plus stars: "It is the last one for a great number of us and we will do everything possible to lift the trophy in South Africa."

Former Parma and Marseille star Lamouchi, made a strong impression on Max Gradel and his team-mates with a heartfelt opening speech.

“He shared his desire for us to accomplish something big together. He stressed that you never win anything by yourself. He emphasised the importance of playing as a team, and his words really affected us. We’ve got bags of individual talent, but the most important thing is to combine our strengths to exceed the expectations of our fans back home,” he continued.

The team has not always been as united within as it may seem from the outside. A sizeable rump of players came through the ASEC Academy and have not always been in harmony with the influential Drogba who was brought up in France. Throw in some big egos and you have a combustible mix.

The World Cup has also been a difficult story. In both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, the Elephants were placed in a so called ‘Group of Death’. In 2006, they faced Argentina, Netherlands and Serbia and Montenegro. It was Argentina and Netherlands who went through.

In 2010 the opposition was Brazil, Portugal, and North Korea. The key game against Portugal was a conservative stalemate and although they thumped the Koreans in the final game it was again not enough.

Drogba says it would be a dream to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
 
"It would be massive to qualify for the World Cup, for a small country like Cote d'Ivoire, a country that had never taken part (before 2006)," he said.
 
"And if it happened, we would certainly be aiming higher than finishing third in our group."

It seems this generation of players have been around forever. Fifteen of the players in the squad against Senegal had over 30 caps and 10 of those 50 plus caps. The average age of the squad was 25. It’s a deceiving statistic because the go to players like Drogba are pushing 30 and beyond.

Perhaps the worth of this side can be measured by more than trophies. The Cote d’Ivoire was in the middle of a civil war. After the country’s qualification for the World Cup, President Laurent Gbagbo acquiesced to the pleas of the Ivorian football federation and restarted peace talks. The country now enjoys a tense ceasefire, thanks solely to the team’s trip to Germany.

Drogba said in an interview with FIFA.com: "The national team means a lot to this country. I think that today - and I choose my words carefully here - it is Cote d'Ivoire's only unifying force."
 
"All our ethnic groups are now represented in the team - Baoules, Betes, and so on. They are all there.”

"So there's a complete cross-section in the Cote d'Ivoire team and I think that it's the only good example there is today."
 
Drogba believes things have evolved in his country where he once played an international match in a stadium where there were rocket launchers and weapons.
 
"It surprised us and was because of the situation at the time, when the country was in a state of crisis," he explained.
 
"It's part of our history, the history of Cote d'Ivoire, but things have changed since then, lots of things have happened. We're trying to move forward, we're trying to get back on our feet, to show people through football that we can live together."

Time is running out for Didier Drogba and other Cote d’Ivoire 'golden generation' stars to capture the Africa Cup of Nations trophy.
 

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