By Akyereko-Frimpong Manson
The Ivory Coast face an uphill task at the World Cup after being drawn into Group G, the ‘Group of Death,’ along with Brazil, Portugal, and the unknown but possible group walkovers North Korea. In their first World Cup appearance, Les Elephants failed to advance from the group stage in Germany four years ago but have the finest crop of players on the African continent and the managerial know-how in former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson.
Recently referred to as Africa’s perennial under achievers, Ivory Coast located in the western part of Africa shares borders with Ghana, another World Cup side, to the east, Liberia and Guinea to the west and Burkina Faso to the North. The over 20 million soccer crazy population follows Les Elephants with passion.
Ivory Coast, a war torn country is gradually patching its way back to socio-political and economic stability. A feat that is hugely grateful to football. Top soccer icons like Didier Drogba Yves Tebily, Manchester City’s Habib Kolo Toure, and Emmanuel Eboue of Arsenal have been able to unite the Ivorian people with football and succeeded where the state politician failed to succeed.
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Les Elephants have been able to calm down nerves and eventually bring peace to the country through entertainment at the Stade Félix Houphouët-Boigny. But what have always eluded them are laurels on the pitch. After snatching the African Cup of Nations from under the noses of Ghana in Senegal eighteen years ago, Ivory Coast have struggled to reach the medal zone of almost every competition they participate in from youth level to senior national team side.
Four years ago, the country sealed a historic world cup qualification to Germany along side of neighbors Ghana and Togo but failed to make their impact felt in a watertight group that included Argentina, Netherlands and Serbia and Montenegro. Les Elephants under French legend Henri Michel finished in third place after comprehensively beating group whipping boys Serbia and Montenegro 3-2. The attacking potent of The Elephants scored in every single game against all three teams in the group phase but conceded a goal more than what they netted.
But that result did not carry over to future tournaments as they placed fourth in the CAN two years later in Ghana after loosing 4-2 to the host in Kumasi. And qualifying for South Africa did not come on a silver platter; an enterprising Burkina Faso side almost stood their way. Les Elephants needed to stop the Stallions at the Stade Félix Houphouët-Boigny to finally book their ticket.
An unstable technical team has vastly affected the progress of the team. Bosnian trainer Vahid Halilhodzic was booted out after an unsuccessful tournament in Angola in January. Demolishing Ghana 3-1 in their opening game, Les Elephants gave promise of winning a major trophy in almost two decades with a star-studded side. Again the story could not change, another contender in South Africa, Algeria produced an inspiration performance to fight twice from behind to thrash them 3-2 in extra-time in the knock out stages of the tournament.
Group G at this year’s World Cup has been ballyhooed as the ‘Group of Death,’ and will showcase some of the tournaments top talent such as Brazil’s Kaka, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and of course the Ivory Coast’s own Didier Drogba set to illuminate the soccer stage in a colossal fashion.
In preparation to equally meet the challenge and match Brazil and Portugal boot for boot and maybe disintegrate group underdogs Korea DPR, 62-year-old former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson who took up the appointment last month has a strong provisional 30-man squad which would be slashed down to 23 by June 1.
The Swede has a big headache in selecting his final men from a squad that consist of vastly experienced players from most of Europe’s top club. The only local players making Les Elephants squad include two goalkeepers from the country’s biggest club-ASEC Mimosas; Vincent Angban and Daniel Yeboah a Ghanaian who has naturalised for them. Danger-men Arthur Boka of VfL Stuttgart, Aruna Dindane of Lens who played majority of the season with relegated premier league side Portsmouth, chief tormentor Kader Keita of Galatasaray, and Chelsea duo of Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou are just enough for the Ivorians to be plucky in South Africa.
With all the talent on the field at his disposal, the challenge rests on the shoulders of Eriksson who should work to produce a more cohesive team to lift their status in the global arena. The Swede gaffer is maybe relishing a massive demolishing of Korea. He will have the chance to understudy the style of play of the Asians by attempting a friendly with another Asian giants and a group E member Japan on June 4 eleven days before their opening game with Portugal at the Nelson Mandela Stadium in Port Elizabeth.
The opening game with Portugal on the 15th will be key for Les Elephants. Eriksson’s must have a positive result in that game to boost their morale for the subsequent games with Brazil and Korea DPR on the 20th and 25th respectively.
With as much talent as any side and a desire to improve on recent results, Les Elephants are Africa’s biggest hope in South Africa and the continent’s bet for glory.
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