When Ivory Coast qualified for the 2006 World Cup in Germany the feeling was that the West African side was poised for a breakout performance unprecedented in the history of African football.
It was a justified expectation. Fronted by powerful striker Didier Drogba—who just two years before had joined Chelsea from Marseille for £24 million—and filled with capable, if unheralded players in every position, Les Elephants had topped a qualification group including Egypt and Cameroon and found themselves grouped with Argentina, the Netherlands and Serbia & Montenegro for the competition proper.
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The section was styled the “Group of Death,” and Ivory Coast’s presence in it was one of the reasons for the label. As it happened they acquitted themselves quite well, losing by only a goal to both Argentina and the Netherlands and beating Serbia & Montenegro 3-2 in Munich.
But if their showing was a sign of things to come for Africa’s up-and-coming football nation, it proved to be quite literally and lamentably so. For the Golden Generation of Ivorian footballers, of which Drogba was, and remains, the crown jewel, would fail to realize its potential in subsequent tournaments—making just one out of four Africa Cup of Nations finals (which they lost on penalties) and crashing out of the 2010 World Cup at the group stage.
Theirs is a history of disappointment that strings all the way back to the 2006 Cup of Nations in Egypt, when Drogba missed his country’s first penalty and watched as the tournament hosts celebrated in front of 80,000 fans in Cairo.
Incredibly, six players from that that squad were back in the continental spotlight in 2012 when Ivory Coast once again came within a whisper of an international breakthrough. Having plowed through Sudan, Burkina Faso, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Mali without allowing a goal, Les Elephants were favoured to win the final against Zambia and should have sealed their victory when Drogba was sent to the spot in the final quarter-hour.
Prior to the match manager Francois Zahoui had made a point of addressing the perceived arrogance associated with the Golden Generation, and until late in the second half in Libreville the lack of respect for the opposition that had come to define previous Ivorian sides appeared to be a thing of the past.
But once again Drogba missed from 12 yards, and despite dominating large swaths of play Ivory Coast found themselves beaten by a comparably inexperienced side that simply enjoyed the magnitude of the occasion, and thrived in it.
Where once “promise” and “possibility” had been the buzzwords of the Golden Generation, now “egotism” and “paranoia” were the descriptors being bandied about.
Both terms remain applicable, and unless Les Elephants can make a deep run into the knockout stages of the upcoming World Cup they will remain as attached to this group of players as the names who have only come up short since 2006.
All six of the internationals who played in both that Cup of Nations and the one in 2012 are back for Brazil. From the goal out, Boubacar Barry, Arthur Boka, Didier Zokora, Kolo Toure, Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba form the heart of the team as well as the core of the Golden Generation, and a further nine of their counterparts have been retained from the Zambia defeat for the 2014 World Cup.
Not surprisingly, expectations are sky-high once again, due in equal parts to the quality in the team and a group stage schedule that will see it face Colombia, Greece and Japan.
Manager Sabri Lamouchi—a coaching rookie when he succeeded Zahoui in 2012—continues to keep the faith in the sextet. All five outfielders featured in a March friendly against Belgium, although Barry was replaced by 20-year-old goalkeeper Sayouba Mande. Lamouchi has, however, parted ways with over-30 midfielders Romaric and Jean-Jacques Gosso—fixtures of Les Elephants since 2006 and 2008, respectively.
The rest of the Golden Generation will likely contest its final World Cup in the coming weeks. And once again, as they have their entire careers, they’ll be playing under the crushing weight of immense expectation not only from Ivory Coast, but from Africa as a whole.
Never before has an African side progressed beyond the quarterfinals, and Ivory Coast were supposed to be the first. This last hurrah will mark the Golden Generation’s final chance to do just that.
Jerrad Peters is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.