Ever since Didier Drogba’s equaliser restored parity in their qualification clash with Malawi, almost nineteen million ‘Elephants’ have been looking forward to the 2010 African Cup of Nations. And why shouldn’t they? Arguably entitled as pre-tournament favourites, the Ivory Coast, or Cote d’Ivoire as some like to say, can be labelled as an entertaining, star-studded team.
Excitement isn’t the only emotion felt though, with strong feelings of hope and anxiety displayed amongst their followers. With Egypt’s 4-1 annihilation of the Ivoirian’s still fresh in their mindset, some supporters are cautious as to how they should approach the prestigious event. Kouadio Jean Jacque told goal.com, ‘Let’s go back to Egypt 2006. Who was banking hopes on them? Nobody! But they went through to the final. And then see what happened at Ghana 2008. The whole nation, even our pets, strongly believed that Drogba and his friends would lift the Cup. But you saw how they messed up.’
And that’s a fair perspective of how pressure can affect even the best of players. Without success in this tournament since 1992, many would argue that the Ivory Coast needs a win, to prove their credentials as Africa’s best team. Since that rememberable penalty shootout epic against Ghana, the ‘Elephants’ have done nothing but disappoint. Round One exits in 1996, 2000, and 2002 were unexpected, and the failure to qualify in 2004 just plain embarrassing. However, heartbreaking defeats to Egypt and Ghana at the latter stages, in 2004 and 2006 respectively, have given the Ivoirians a reputation as one of the nations to be feared at the forthcoming African Cup of Nations.
Qualification came with relevant ease for the ‘Elephants’, with a bye in round one. Grouped with Mozambique, Madagascar and Botswana, the Ivory Coast came through undefeated, conceding only two goals in the process. Efficient 4-0 and 3-0 victories over Botswana and Madagascar respectively were highly impressive, although the inability to pick up a single away win was described at the time by coach Vahid Halilhodži? as ‘slightly worrying’. However, any worries Halilhodži? had were rectified in round three, with undoubtedly the most impressive qualifying campaign of the stage. Once again, the Cote d’Ivoire excelled at home, with outstanding performances against Burkina Faso (null-0), Guinea (null-0), and Malawi (null-0). But, notably, performances away from the Stade Félix Houphouët-Boigny improved rapidly, proving victorious in Burkina Faso and Guinea, and after the aforementioned Drogba equaliser in Malawi, qualification was confirmed.
However, the draw for the main event, which starts on January 10th, did not prove to be favourable for the Ivoirians. Qualification for the latter stages is no longer a foregone conclusion, after they were grouped with Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Togo. The Ivory Coast’s first encounter is against Burkina Faso, who were no match for them during the qualifying phase. Despite this, Paulo Duarte’s side will be trying to cause a shock early on, with Al-Khor’s striker Moumouni Dagano pin-pointed as the main attacking threat. Next up for the ‘Elephants’ are Ghana, one of the perennial favourites to win the event. With top-drawer players such as Michael Essien and Kwadwo Asamoah amongst their ranks, the ‘Black Stars’ will prove to be tough to break down. However, Ghana almost didn’t even get to this stage, after embarrassing defeats to Libya and Gabon left them top of their qualifying group only on the virtue of goal difference. The Ivoirians last group encounter is against Togo, who many describe as a ‘one-man show’, in Man City’s Emmanuel Adebayor. Since their achievements at the 2006 World Cup, Togo have found success hard to come by, with qualification only secured in their last game amid court appeals to FIFA over a walk-over given to Gabon, after Abdul Mamah was included in their starting line-up despite suspension.
In hindsight, Halilhodži?s’ side are tipped to perform well at the African Cup of Nations. The Ivoirians should get out of their group, although whether this will be in first or second place can be disputed. Seeded to meet Angola or Mali in the quarter-finals, many expect them to reach the semi-finals at least, where depending on their group position, they should either face Egypt or Cameroon. Can Drogbas’ side go all the way? It’s about time they had some success…
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