Like many of his Côte d’Ivoire team-mates, Didier Drogba has won countless trophies with his club sides, but what has eluded him, at least so far, is a winners' medal from a major international competition with the national team. At age 34, time is against the big striker, but as he tells FIFA.com, it would be a grand achievement for the Elephants if they could win the ongoing CAF Africa Cup of Nations title.
Last year, Côte d’Ivoire made it through to the final of the tournament in Gabon. There they faced underdogs Zambia, and with the score goalless in the 70th minute, they were awarded a penalty, which Drogba shot over. Although the striker made his spot kick in the eventual penalty shoot-out, the Chipolopolo went on to win 8-7 to deny Drogba and his team-mates once again. Ironically, given the plaudits for his winning penalty for Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League final last year, Drogba is also known in Africa for missing a spot kick in the 2006 final shoot-out against Egypt.
But the irrepressible Abidjan native is keeping things positive ahead of what is sure to be a rugged quarter-final on Sunday against two-time champions Nigeria as he looks ahead to a possible final on 10 February in Johannesburg. "I am really hoping that we can win the tournament this time around. It has been a long wait for us, and it would be massive if we could win," Drogba said after the Elephants drew their final Group D match with Algeria 2-2. The 1992 AFCON winners had already guaranteed top spot in the group after their two opening victories against Togo and Tunisia.
In the 3-0 victory against Tunisia, Drogba started the game on the bench - the first time in recent memory he has not started a match for his national team - but Ivorian coach Sabri Lamouchi said Drogba remained an important member of the team and that he was not concerned with the striker’s fitness level, even though he has hardly played in the last three months. "I am not worried. We see him work every day. He is stepping up every day. Hopefully we will go as far as possible, and he will be a key element in our future success. We are not worried about him, and he himself does not worry," the coach said.
We showed a lot of character and strength, and it is better to have to make such corrections during the group phase, rather than later in the tournament.
Against Algeria, Drogba was again in the starting line-up and his 77th-minute goal started off the Elephants' come-back after being two goals down. Asked about his performance, Drogba was his typically modest self. "I’d rather not comment on my individual performance, but on the team's performance. The goal I scored was nothing special, it did not bring us a victory, but it only helped us to come back for a result."
He said that the game proved two things to him, an astute observer of the game. "First, if we ease up our efforts, we will be made to pay. And second, when we decide to push forward, showing our determination and delivering the goods, we see that there is quality in this team. I hope we learn these lessons. It was also good to see that we could come back from being two goals down. We showed a lot of character and strength, and it is better to have to make such corrections during the group phase, rather than later in the tournament."
A meet-up with Mikel
About Côte d’Ivoire’s match against Nigeria in Rustenburg, Drogba admitted that it will be a difficult undertaking. “Against Nigeria, it will be a tough game, against a team that also intends to go far in this tournament. The Super Eagles are a very strong team, very physical. Stephen Keshi has been doing good work, but I hope that Côte d’Ivoire will win and go through, but it will not be easy."
Drogba will face his former team-mate John Obi Mikel in the quarter-finals, and he is looking forward to the clash. "It is going to be hard and tough, everybody knows how good [Mikel] is, and what he did with Chelsea in the Champions League final - he was one of our best players in that game. But now I will play against him. We are going to laugh before the game, then it will be tough during the match, but then laugh again after the game because we are good friends. He is my brother."
Speaking of his club career, the striker did not want to comment on his move to Turkish club Galatasaray from Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua. "I am concentrating on the AFCON, and I want us to win."
Having been pre-tournament favourites for the last five editions of the AFCON, many Ivorian fans believe this must finally be the team’s year. And it could well be that Drogba, who played five matches at the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cup™, gets a chance to shine on the international stage once again at this year's FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil, where the 2013 AFCON champions will take on FIFA World Cup and European champions Spain, as well as Uruguay and Tahiti.