Despite being in his first management position, 41-year-old Sabri Lamouchi can call on his almost two decade career as a player in his goal of leading Côte d’Ivoire to their second CAF Africa Cup of Nations title next month. The Elephants have reached the final match twice in the last four continental events, but the golden generation of players is in danger of failing to fulfil their great promise. The Frenchman spoke to FIFA.com about the talented team and his commitment to helping the side have a breakthrough at a big tournament.
FIFA.com: What are your preparation plans for the Elephants in the run-up to the Cup of Nations?
Sabri Lamouchi: Since winning the match in Austria on November 15th [3-0], I stayed in Europe to watch some games and meet with players, and I will continue to do so through the month of December. On January 5th, we will meet in Paris and fly to Abu Dhabi where the group trained ahead of the 2012 CAN. We will stay there until the 16th, and we have scheduled a friendly against Egypt on the 14th.
The final list of 23 players will be submitted ten days prior to the start of the CAN. How many players will you go to camp with?
Twenty-three! I am going with this option knowing very well that a player can get hurt. Of course, I have a list of alternates, who will be notified, but I prefer that they remain with their clubs, where they will be in full competition up until they are needed. In my mind, my group is just about set.
Didier Drogba was denied a special loan move this month after the end of the Chinese season, but before the transfer window. Would you have preferred a different outcome?
Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. There are two ways to think about this issue: if he played somewhere before the CAN, it could have allowed him to regain the pace of competition, but then playing would up his risk of injury and possibly jeopardize his participation at the finals. Didier is a great professional, so I know he will be ready for the competition. He might have to get up to speed, but he is conscientious and is very careful about his fitness.
The draw has put Côte d'Ivoire in Group D up against Tunisia, Togo and Algeria. What do you know about your three opponents?
Algeria and Tunisia are two teams who play attacking football but are also difficult to break down. Technically, there is a lot of quality, while they also have tactical intelligence and good collective play. Before the finals, I will keep studying them. As for Togo, they could be returning to the highest level. Physically, they seem very strong. Anyway, we will really need to be at our best if we want to top the group.
And as one of the favourites, Côte d'Ivoire must be thinking about going all the way?
Of course - along with Zambia, the defending champions, Ghana, who for many years have shown great consistency, and of course South Africa as host country. We accept our status as favourites. When I was appointed in May to coach the Elephants, I was perfectly aware of the level of this team. It has great strength, with players who have won a lot with their clubs.
But nothing with their national team…
It's true even though the team has everything it needs to do so. Somehow, it has been a waste, and if this generation would never win anything, it would be a huge waste. So to win the CAN is our ambition, and I know my players are capable of it. They must take ownership of this project. For some of them, this is probably their last chance to win this competition. I believe in this group.
Has the team not been a prisoner of its own expectations or grand reputation?
Two Ivorians - Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure - are among five players nominated to receive the award for best African player this year. And Didier Drogba has been named in the list for the FIFA Ballon d'Or. So there are big individuals in this side. But it is the group that must make the difference, not just a few players. Take Spain: they have big names like Iniesta, Villa, Xavi and Fabregas, but despite that we most often talk about the quality of the collective. Note that I do not want to compare Côte d'Ivoire with Spain. It is just an example from which to take inspiration.
Your appointment was quite controversial, but since taking over the side has gone unbeaten with four wins and two draws. Have you won over the critics?
I accepted the criticism and doubts at the time of my appointment. I understood it because, after all, I had no coaching experience. One should not ignore their critics. But I spent many years as a player, so I am not a novice in this environment. There must be a first time. I do not know if I have convinced everyone, but I want to do everything I can to help these players realise this project. I pledge my credibility at every moment.