Road to Rio: Drogba key for Ivorians

Didier Drogba in action for Ivory Coast. (AP)

Dignitaries from all over the world will gather in Brazil in early December for the FIFA World Cup draw as the field of teams is divided into groups for next summer’s festivities. As part of its “32 teams in 32 days” series, SPORTSNET.CA will profile each of the nations set to compete at Brazil, leading up to the draw on Dec. 6.

These days it’s hard to remember that for decades upon decades the Ivory Coast was nowhere in terms of World Cup football. Such is the depth and quality of their talent pool today that it’s hard to fathom that they hadn’t even appeared in the tournament until 2006. They weren’t completely off the map—Les Elephants had grabbed a handful of third-place finishes at the Africa Cup of Nations, along with the title in 1992—but they weren’t a power. These days, they’re the power of African football, the highest ranked team on the continent. Ironically, now that they’re good, they can’t win—despite their supreme quality, they just can’t nail down that second continental title, finishing as runners up twice in the past five tournaments.

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How they got here: Les Elephants stayed true to their nickname in their first round of qualifying, stomping the life out of their group with four wins and two draws. The playoff round, however, was a different matter. Drawn against Senegal, the Ivory Coast jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first match at home—they’d lean on that lead right up until a 94th-minute Solomon Kalou goal secured a second-leg draw and a berth in Brazil.

Key match: When you open a make-or-break two-legged playoff series at home, there’s pressure. You have to win. Overturning an aggregate deficit away from home is pretty much impossible—the momentum tends to roll right over you. The Ivory Coast understood all that when they kicked off in Abidjan against Senegal last month. So you can imagine the relief around the Stade Felix Houphouet-Boigny when Didier Drogba potted a third-minute penalty to put the Ivorians ahead. Two goals later and Les Elephants could be satisfied with a job done at home. Even a last-gasp strike by Papiss Cisse to give Senegal a consolation goal couldn’t bring the aggregate score within reach for the second match.

Star player: Didier Drogba is a huge star—that much is clear to everyone. He’s got 157 goals in 341 games; he’s won three Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two league cups and a Champions League title; and he’s been awarded a Premier League Player of the Year award, a Players’ Player of the Year award, two Premier League golden boots and two African Player of the Year titles. And that’s just in his time at Chelsea. What’s less obvious to international soccer fans is just how important Drogba is in his native Ivory Coast. He’s more than a soccer player. He’s a god. Such is his standing at home that Drogba single-handedly stopped a bloody five-year-long civil war. Upon qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, Drogba, as captain of the national team, appeared on TV surrounded by his teammates, fell to his knees and begged the warring factions to stop. Within just a few days, they did. They haven’t fought since. Ronaldo, Messie, Ibra—no one else in world soccer has that kind of gravitas. So forget Drogba’s power in the air, his rocket free kicks and his ability to conjure up magic on the pitch. Never mind the 62 goals in 98 games for Les Elephants. To Ivorians, Didier Drogba is far more than just a footballer. And rightly so.

Player on the bubble: Everyone loves Emmanuel Eboue. The Galatasaray defender is, apparently, just about the most well-liked player on any team he plays for—quick with a joke, forever dancing and grinning, always upbeat. Everyone, it seems, except Ivory Coast manager Sabri Lamouchi, who hasn’t called Eboue to the national team since the Africa Cup of Nations in February. (Actually, even Lamouchi probably likes Eboue, just not enough to call him up.) Eboue offers value beyond his demeanor, of course—he’s the quintessential utility man, able to slot in from defence up to wing along the right side, in the middle of the park and even—in a pinch—at centre back. But it’s a hard battle for a jack-of-all-trades to crack into a team full of masters. Time is running out for Eboue to add World Cup matches to his 78 caps—but he’ll take comfort in the fact that if just about anyone’s form slips, he’ll be there to take their place.

Team strengths: Strength in depth isn’t really a hallmark of African teams—the lack of top-quality local leagues means player development relies heavily on foreign (mostly European) clubs plucking young diamonds out of the rough and polishing them up. There’s no shortage of scouts across the continent, sure, and there are foreign-born players available for call-ups, but it’s still a hit-and-miss system producing uneven national teams that often rely heavily on isolated superstars.

Not so with this Ivory Coast team. This team is well balanced, with a top-quality spine running through the Toure brothers (Kolo, a Liverpool centre-back; and Yaya, Manchester City’s talismanic midfielder) and defensive midfielder Cheik Tiote (Newcastle) up to an enviable attacking corps that includes Drogba, Solomon Kalou (Lille), Gervinho (AS Roma) and Wilfried Bony (Swansea City).

Team weaknesses: Getting results on the big stage. On the face of things, Les Elephants are the best team in Africa—by some distance, you could argue. But on the pitch, they just can’t put things together to win tournaments. In the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations they got dumped in the quarters; in 2012 they lost in the finals to Zambia. (Zambia!) In the World Cup they’ve never broken out of the group stage. With all that talent, the Ivory Coast has to do better. That’s a load that rests on team captain Didier Drogba and manager Sabri Lamouchi. Only time will tell if they can bear the burden, or if they’ll crumble yet again.

World Cup record:
1930 to 1970—Did not enter
1974 to 2002—Did not qualify
2006—First round
2010—First round

Team profiles: Algeria | Argentina | Australia | Belgium | Bosnia and Herzegovina | Cameroon | Chile | Costa Rica | Colombia | Croatia | Ecuador | England| Germany | Ghana | Greece | Honduras | Iran | Italy | Ivory Coast | Japan | Mexico | The Netherlands | Nigeria | Portugal | Russia | South Korea | Spain | Switzerland | United States | Uruguay

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