Arthur Boka may be a diminutive figure at just 1.67m and 67kg, but the Côte d’Ivoire’s international is a bundle of muscular energy on the field of play. The versatile defender is now in his fifth Bundesliga season with VfB Stuttgart and rates as a key player for Die Schwaben.
His nickname, ‘The African Roberto Carlos’, is very apt, with the Ivorian’s physique and style of play reminiscent of the iconic Brazilian wing-back. "I’m honoured to be compared to such a great player, but I’m Arthur Boka, and I want to make a name for myself in my own right," he explained to FIFA.com.
Boka took up the game in his home town of Abidjan, where he was born in April 1983. While still at the ASEC Mimosas academy, the left-footer caught the eye of European scouts, and he duly switched to Belgian top-flight outfit Beveren in 2002. He later left the Jupiler League and crossed the border to Racing Strasbourg, where his solid performances in Ligue 1 earned him his international breakthrough.
The world stage as showcase
Boka appeared in all three of the Elephants’ group stage matches at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ Germany and was subsequently snapped up by Stuttgart, a move he has never regretted.
"There’s been a huge improvement in the quality of German football in recent years. The Bundesliga is one of the best leagues in the world, both in terms of the football and the infrastructure. The stadiums and training facilities here are absolutely state-of-the-art," commented Boka, reflecting on his experiences in Belgium, France and Germany.
The highlight of the 27-year-old’s career to date came in 2007 with Stuttgart’s storming run to the Bundesliga title. Years of careful team-building and development at the club paid off, as Boka and Co continued their good form in the following seasons, with sixth spot in 2007/08, third in 2008/09, and sixth again last term.
Pleased with progress at VfB
"Winning the league was fantastic. We’ve certainly come on a long way as a club. We’ve qualified for Europe eight times in the last nine years, including three appearances in the Champions League," Boka declared with some pride.
However, things have gone awry this term and Stuttgart are facing arguably their greatest crisis since relegation from the German top flight for the second time back in the mid-1970s. At the midpoint of the domestic campaign, the club have amassed just 12 points from 17 league matches, with eleven defeats and only three victories. Two head coaches have already been dismissed, and VfB find themselves adrift just one place off the bottom of the league.
Expectations at home always run extremely high, and that puts a huge amount of pressure on the team.
However, the team coached since last week by Bruno Labbadia have performed with far greater credit in Europe, easily winning UEFA Europa League Group H from Young Boys Berne, Getafe and Odense.
High hopes of improvement
"We started well in the Europa League, so there was much less pressure later on. We need to maintain that momentum in the new year," said the player, whose side meet top Portuguese outfit Benfica in the Round of 32.
For all his team’s tribulations this season, Boka himself is in respectable form. The man capped 58 times by his country has started 12 of the Swabians’ 17 Bundesliga matches, scoring twice and providing three assists.
"I’m happy to play wherever the coach needs me, which is in left midfield at the moment. A midfielder should be operating closer to his opponents’ goal than a defender, and it's worked out pretty well so far," he noted.
Regular for the Elephants
Good form at club level is also vital for the player’s future international career, which has already featured appearances at the last two FIFA World Cup finals. Following his debut on the global stage in 2006, Boka was again a member of the Ivorian squad last summer and has now played four games at the finals.
"Our final group match at the last World Cup was bittersweet. On the one hand, we beat North Korea to get our first win [of the campaign], but on the other, it wasn’t enough to make the last sixteen," Boka recalled.
In both 2006 and 2010, Côte d’Ivoire were regarded as promising outside bets, but failed to survive the group stage on both occasions. It was a major disappointment for the African heavyweights, as Boka freely admitted to FIFA.com: "Expectations at home always run extremely high, and that puts a huge amount of pressure on the team. We’ve not quite met expectations at a major tournament yet, but we’re working all the time towards fixing that."
Next chance in 2012?
The Ivorians are currently engaged in qualifying for their next major tournament, the CAF African Cup of Nations in 2012. The Elephants have made a perfect start to their Group H campaign with a 3-0 victory over Rwanda and a 1-0 success against Burundi. The next fixture is a home meeting with Benin in March 2011.
"We’re regarded as favourites, and we aim to live up to that billing, although we know all about the strength of our rivals and will need to be well-prepared. Naturally, our aim is to qualify for the African Cup tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea," the player said.
If Boka’s team-mates can match his determination and single-mindedness, it could yet be that this highly-rated Côte d’Ivoire side emulates the class of 1992, who brought the continental trophy home to the west African nation for the first and only time in their history.