While Ivory Coast may have attended fewer tournaments than many of the competitors at this year’s World Cup, they may have learned more than most.
The 1992 African Cup of Nations champions have only previously qualified once for the biggest football tournament on the planet, and their experience at the 2006 competition is not one they will wish to repeat.
After finishing as runners up at the 2006 African Cup of Nations the team arrived in Germany full of confidence, a feeling not entirely shared by a fractured nation watching back home.
Since 2002 a civil war had raged between the north and the south, with issues of race and nationality dominating the lives of those Ivorians who had not already fled the country. But a topsy-turvy qualifying campaign captured the nation’s imagination, and a nervous final day victory over Sudan confirmed Ivory Coast’s first World Cup appearance.
After that game the Elephants’ captain and talisman Didier Drogba, the hugely talented Chelsea striker, led his team in a plea to the watching fans. “Ivorians, we ask for your forgiveness,” was the message. “Let us come together and put this war behind us.”
Any hope for a successful campaign, however, was put into harsh perspective when the draw for the competition’s first stage found Ivory Coast pitted against former champions Argentina and the Netherlands, as well as Serbia and Montenegro, in what many pundits termed the ‘Group of Death.’
Nevertheless that name represented not only the strength of the opposition, but also the respect and stature that Ivory Coast had won themselves. With former French national manager Henri Michel in charge, and a wealth of renowned stars, the nation’s hope was combined with a burden of expectation going into their first ever World Cup match against Argentina.
A frenetic, powerful first half performance shocked the South American giants. But poor finishing allowed Argentina to gain control of the match through a goal apiece from Hernan Crespo and Javier Saviola. A late strike from Drogba set up a tense finish, but the final 2-1 loss served as a harsh lesson on not taking chances.
Two more expertly taken goals from Robin van Persie and Ruud van Nistelrooy left Ivory Coast with a mountain to climb in their second group game against the Netherlands. A spirited fightback, begun by Bakari Kone’s stunning finish, almost brought the Elephants their first point of the tournament, but after another 2-1 defeat they instead found themselves eliminated after only two matches.
The final game against Serbia and Montenegro looked like it would be a similar story, as Ivory Coast found themselves 2-0 down after only twenty minutes. Instead Munich’s Allianz Arena saw history as the Elephants recorded their first ever World Cup victory, courtesy of two goals from Aruna Dindane and a late penalty from Bonaventure Kalou.
What could have been a proud moment for the nation, however, was tarnished by the removal of Michel immediately after the match. Under criticism throughout the tournament, the Elephants manager took the blame for what was considered to be an underachieving debut World Cup campaign.
Ivory Coast came home disappointed from Germany in 2006, but the country had real reason to celebrate only one year later. In March 2007 a peace deal was signed between the government and rebel forces, bringing an end to the civil war. The plea from Drogba and his team-mates had been answered.
Three years on and it is now a unified Ivory Coast represented by the orange-clad Elephants in South Africa. The harsh lessons in taking chances may still be vivid memories for fans and players alike, but it is the lessons learned from their country’s appearance on the global stage which will have the most resonance.
2006 saw a country in turmoil. Their manager under fire, the team underperforming, and many fans forced to watch their elimination away from their own war-torn home, the World Cup was merely a brief distraction from an unpleasant reality.
This year, with the competition held closer to home than ever before, it represents an opportunity to be more than simply a distraction. The world will be watching in a fortnight’s time, and with the team now cheered on by a nation no longer at war with itself, the Elephants have the chance to make South Africa 2010 a World Cup to remember for all of the right reasons.
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