Will the Third Time Be the Charm for Ivory Coast in the World Cup?
It’s tough not to cheer for Les Elephants - their country has been ravaged by decades of civil war, and despite an enormous wealth of talent emerging over the last decade, they have yet to put it all together and win a major trophy. And who has a better crest than an elephant whimsically playing with a soccer ball?
Academies backed by European clubs began to pop up in the Ivory Coast in the in the mid-90s, creating a bumper crop of talented players and an emerging soccer power. In its relatively short existence as a thriving footballing nation, however, Cote d’Ivoire has endured an inordinate amount of heartache. In 2006, they lost to Egypt on penalties in the African Cup of Nations final. They again finished second at the 2012 tournament - again losing on spot kicks - after Didier Drogba missed a 75th minute penalty, which resulted in a 0-0 tie after regulation.
But their misfortunate hasn’t been limited to heart wrenching losses in the African Cup of Nations. They’ve gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to their World Cup draw, landing in the group of death at their only two appearances at the tournament. In their World Cup debut in 2006, they drew Argentina, the Netherlands, and Serbia. In 2010 it was Portugal, Brazil, and North Korea. As if being placed in a group with Brazil and Ronaldo-led Portugal wasn’t enough, Drogba broke his arm weeks before the 2010 tournament, opting to tough it out Ronnie Lott-style and play with a cast on. It came as no surprise that they did not make it out of the group stage of either tournament.
This year could be different. A favorable draw has seen them placed in one of the easier groups, alongside Japan, Greece, and Colombia in Group E. While Colombia will likely claim the top spot in the group, second place is up for grabs, as evidenced by the minor disparity between each country’s nERD (team efficiency) - a mere .16 points separates the three teams.
The Ivory Coast possesses veteran leadership in spades, an important factor in such a high-pressure competition. Didier Drogba and Kolo Toure have amassed an impressive trophy haul at the club level, and while they may be getting a little long in the tooth, there is no denying their experience and presence in the locker room.
Ivory Coast has questions in defense and at goalkeeper. The aforementioned Kolo Toure was culpable for several boneheaded mistake in Liverpool’s run at the title, and Didi Zokora doesn’t inspire much confidence himself. The former Spurs player is 33 and now plays at Trabzonspor in Turkey. 21-year old right back Serge Aurier has caught the eye of Arsene Wenger and Arsenal and should provide width from the back, while Stuttgart’s diminutive speedster Arthur Boka will line up at left back.
Yaya Toure - despite getting more and more Metta World Peace-ian by the day - is the most dominant midfielder at the tournament. A box-to-box monster, he covers a ton of ground and provides his team with the complete player: a ball-winner, distributor, world class free kick taker, and a great eye for goal. He finished runner-up to Luis Suarez as the PFA Player of the Year in England and inspired Manchester City to the league title. Yaya has grown leaps and bounds as a player in the last four years and is capable of singlehandedly dominating the midfield. He has transformed into a talismanic talent, vastly experienced and a proven winner.
The rest of the midfield lacks any standout talent, though most do ply their trade in Europe. Chiek Tiote, a fiery 27-year old who plays for Newcastle, will need to keep a cool head, as he’s no stranger to the ref’s book.
While they may not have much depth elsewhere on the field, Cote d’Ivoire certainly does not lack for options in attack. Drogba is still a physical specimen at age 36 and there is plenty of quality in the side that could push him to the bench in a substitute role. Seydou Doumbia scored an impressive 18 goals in 18 appearances (while also chipping in 7 assists) for title-winning CKSA Moscow and Swansea’s Wilfried Bony racked up 16 goals in his first season in the Barclays Premier League. Both are capable finishers and should see plenty of time on the field.
Gervinho may have disappointed at Arsenal, both in the goal scoring as well as the follicle department, but he’s rekindled his career at Roma and has always been a dynamic player for the national team. Lacina Traore did not play much while on loan at Everton (due mostly to injury), but his enormous 6’8” frame could provide a great change of pace off the bench.
The Ivory Coast has a legitimate shot at making it out of their group, but a lack of depth and talent in defense could be their undoing. As evidenced by their 1.72 Total, they should have no problem scoring goals, but they will likely leak them in as well. A pair of creaky center backs and a subpar goalkeeper means they will have to hit the back of the net with regularity if they’re going to move on.
Looking at their nERD compared to the teams they are scrapping with, Greece and Japan, it should be a very tight group, with Japan slight favorite to finish second. Lining up against group favorites Colombia in the first round of the group stages means they will likely need a result in their two games, and they’ll have to attack early and often against a tough Greek defense and a solid Japanese team.
Defense tends to prevail at major international tournaments, and that likely spells trouble for the Ivory Coast. But with plenty of firepower and one of the tournament’s best players, Les Elephants have a puncher’s chance in what should be a highly entertaining and competitive group.