Fate has not been helpful to Ivory Coast at World Cups. In 2006, as the so-called golden generation first emerged, they were drawn in an impossible group with Argentina, Holland and Serbia-Montenegro, lost their first two games and were out almost before they had begun. Four years later, they lost to Brazil, drew with Portugal and, although they beat North Korea, went out as Brazil and Portugal played out a goalless draw.
The tournament has been rather kinder on this occasion but the truth is that time has probably been called in the last-chance saloon, and the Ivorians are outside on the pavement wondering if there is anywhere else still open.
From Hungary’s Aranycsapat onwards, being dubbed a golden generation seems a sure-fire way of winning nothing. Ivory Coast in the past 10 years have had a collection of players unprecedented in their history: the 1992 squad who won the Africa Cup of Nations may have been the better team but they did not have so many individuals of such high class – Didier Drogba, the TourÃ© brothers, Didier Zokora, Salomon Kalou, Emmanuel EbouÃ©, Cheik TiotÃ©, Gervinho. This is a side that should have won trophies but looks like ending up bereft.
The squad is ageing. Drogba is 36 and is extremely unlikely to be able to complete three games in a week and a half. Zokora, once such a busy midfielder, has lost his pace and is now a central defender. Kolo TourÃ©, who is suffering from malaria, seems never quite to have recovered from the chasing he was given by Egypt’s Amr Zaki in the semi-final of the Cup of Nations in 2008, a game for which he probably returned too quickly from a groin injury. Yaya TourÃ©, an increasingly vital player for Ivory Coast, has still not taken a full part in training and may not be able to start his side’s first game, against Japan on Saturday. TiotÃ©’s form has dipped over the past couple of years.
Strengths are waning and the weaknesses haven’t been resolved, with the possible exception of right-back, where the 21-year-old Serge Aurier of Toulouse has emerged as a defender of huge potential. In goal Boubacar Barry remains the liability he has been for a decade, while there is still the issue of creativity. Yaya TourÃ© provides it to an extent in his languid way but he is more effective with quicker forwards – which is why Wilfried Bony could end up being so valuable at the World Cup, even if he is essentially Drogba’s reserve.
When Gervinho first impressed at Lille, he seemed exactly the player Ivory Coast had been lacking but his confidence remains desperately fragile. That was never more painfully displayed than in the penalty shootout at the end of the 2012 Cup of Nations final when he refused to take Ivory Coast’s eighth penalty – which ended up being missed by Kolo TourÃ© – and then reluctantly took the ninth, resulting in a wholly predictable failure as Zambia took the title. When he opened the scoring against Tunisia in the 2013 Cup of Nations, the exuberance of the celebrations was almost patronising: there was a clear sense of Gervinho’s team-mates trying to make him feel positive. He played well in that game – and had scored the late winner against Togo in the first match -but by the quarter-final his self-belief was gone.
It is that game, a 2-1 defeat by Nigeria, that is the real cause of concern for Ivory Coast. Of all their failures in recent Cups of Nations, that was the worst. In 2006 they lost in the final on penalties against the hosts, Egypt. In 2012 they lost on penalties to Zambia. In 2008 they lost in the semis to a very good Egypt. In 2010 they took the lead with a minute of the quarter-final against Algeria to go, then forgot to defend a cross and conceded an injury-time equaliser, before doing the same again two minutes into extra-time to lose 3-2: that was probably their best chance but after two years unbeaten Vahid Halilhodzic (now manager of Algeria) was sacked as coach for, as he put it, ‘two minutes of madness’.
For once Ivory Coast have shown patience – Sabri Lamouchi is the first Ivory Coast coach in over a decade to keep his job after failing to win the Cup of Nations and yet he is the one with fewest excuses. In that quarter-final in Rustenburg last year he was comprehensively out-thought by the Nigeria coach, Stephen Keshi, unable to respond as the Nigeria full-backs, Efe Ambrose and Elderson Echiejile, rampaged past his wide forwards, Gervinho and Kalou. Although Nigeria won only 2-1, it was a comprehensive defeat for Ivory Coast, one that made them look sluggish and disorganised.
World Cup qualification was achieved easily enough – thanks to a relatively straightforward draw – but they have not impressed in recent friendlies. Although Ivory Coast drew 2-2 in Belgium in March, they were outplayed for long periods before scoring two late goals as a blizzard of substitutions undermined the structure of the match. Then they were well beaten 2-1 by Bosnia in a performance of astonishing sloppiness in which space opened up again and again in front of the back four. A friendly against El Salvador last Tuesday provided rather more hope with something closer to a probable first-choice team (without Yaya TourÃ©). Drogba set up Gervinho for the first and Gervinho set up Drogba for the second in a 2-1 win.
Still, it was hardly a crushing endorsement. Pre-tournament friendlies are notoriously unreliable guides to form but the pattern of the past two years has not been good. This is an ageing squad and Lamouchi has done little to suggest he can re-energise it.
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