In the last decade, no African nation has boasted the sheer footballing talent that the Ivory Coast has.
Even a cursory glance at their squad would highlight names like Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Didier Zokora.
Yaya Toure, at 31, is probably the best midfielder in the world. Easily the most versatile player in the world, with an engine to match, he scored 20 goals for Manchester City en route to the Premier League title last season.
In doing so, he was the third highest scorer in the league. He was also the only midfielder amongst the top 10.
Yaya Toure also has the immense luxury of passing the ball to an array of lethal strikers. 36-year-old Didier Drogba is a cult hero and, most importantly, transcendent footballing talent.
Kalou has had a long and distinguished career in Europe. He’s 28. Zokora, following three seasons at Turkish side Tranzonspor, is Ivory Coast’s most capped player and 33 years old. Their best goalkeeper, Boubacar Barry, is 34.
The above players form the nucleus of the Ivory Coast squad. They’ve been there for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, where Les Elephants failed to progress through the group stage. They were there for the 2006 and 2012 African Cup of Nations, where a second-place finish was all that could be mustered up on both occasions.
They are the golden generation of Ivory Coast’s national football side, but yet they’re in danger of retiring without any glory to speak of.
— Manchester City FC (@MCFC) October 12, 2013
Since 2012, they have played only five matches against countries outside of Africa. From those five matches, they boast a record of one win, one draw and three defeats.
They have since been drawn in a strong group at the World Cup, facing off against what many – including Upstart – have predicted will be a rampant Colombian side, a Japanese squad which plays in the Spanish mould, and a viciously defensive Greek team.
Their greatest strength is their all-out attack. Drogba is a superb striker and is ably assisted by the likes of Kalou, Hannover forward Didier Ya Konan, the revitalised Roma forward Gervinho and Everton pair Lacina Traore and Arouna Kone.
The younger Toure – Yaya – will push forward and no doubt cause havoc, but this leaves too much to the elder Kolo Toure and Zokora, who – due to the Ivory Coast’s relative weakness in defence – is a central midfielder masquerading as a centre half.
Topping this off is the inexperience of their national coach. 42-year-old Frenchman Sabri Lamouchi’s appointment was a surprise to everybody, including Lamouchi himself.
Lamouchi, upon taking the position as head coach, said: “I don’t think anyone expected it, me included.”
Such statements do not inspire any great levels of confidence, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Outstanding 21-year-old prospect Serge Aurier, who has been heavily linked with English club Arsenal, has been picked in the 23-man squad and will thrive on the pressure of the world stage. Described as a “freakish athlete”, Aurier will provide run as a wing-back.
The Ivory Coast’s best players – Drogba, Toure and Kalou – are all imposing, tall figures. Against teams like Japan, who do not boast tall defenders, their best chance of scoring may be to push the Blue Samurai down the wings, attempting to score from crosses.
One could argue that Les Elephants have been unlucky at the World Cup in their two campaigns. In 2006, they were drawn in the colloquial ‘Group of Death’ against Argentina, the Netherlands, and Serbia. The same followed at the 2010 Cup, where they bombed out following a loss to Brazil and a draw with Portugal.
By the time the 2018 World Cup in Russia rolls around, Drogba will be 40 and likely lost to football. Kolo Toure will be 37, the younger Yaya 35. Didier Zokora will be 37.
If they are to add international trophies to their already considerable resumes, it must be in Brazil. Otherwise the best squad Africa has ever seen may have been wasted.