Côte d'Ivoire coach Vahid Halilhodzic probably summed up the Elephants' campaign as they left Angola and the Cup of Nations to return home in search of answers. “This is a huge disappointment, of course. Great teams do not let a 2-1 lead slip away a few minutes before full-time like that. We came here with great hopes, and we did not deliver.” It was blunt assessment from the former Yugoslavia international of the team with so much potential.
Following their near flawless display in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Côte d'Ivoire came to Angola as one of the favourites. After all, they had shown all the signs of a team that have not only matured but had a genuine hunger to conquer the continent and ascend to the pinnacle of African football. For a country that will shoulder much of the African continent’s expectations at this year’s world finals, their performance at the continental championship might have prompted questions about their readiness.
On paper at least, Côte d'Ivoire have assembled a galaxy of stars and one of the finest sides in the history of African football, boasting top-drawer ability through the team like Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, Barcelona engineman Yaya Toure, Emmanuel Eboue, Kolo Toure and Salomon Kalou.
The Elephants had a rocky start to their tournament as they were held to a goalless draw by a gutsy and resilient Burkina Faso. This was a match where a lot was expected from the orange-clad side, but they could not convert their chances into goals. Their final group match was against the eventual finalists Ghana where the Ivorians reigned supreme with a 3-1 victory. However, things went horribly wrong for them in the quarter-finals as they were pushed the distance by Algeria, who ultimately emerged victorious 3-2 after extra time. Having given up the lead twice in that match, their tournament came to an abrupt and surprising end.
This is a huge disappointment, of course. Great teams do not let a 2-1 lead slip away a few minutes before full-time like that. We came here with great hopes, and we did not deliver.
Inauspicious results aside, the Elephants' campaign was not as bad as the statistics reveal. Yes, they experienced more speed-bumps and potholes than they anticipated, but their spirited showing against Algeria added to one of the matches of the tournament. While the result did not favour them on that day, their performance, which included a fabulous goal from Abdelkader Keita scored in the 89th minute, was largely positive. After a slow start against the Burkinabe, the Elephants bounced back with an emphatic and clinical performance against the Black Stars. It was a convincing and splendid performance against a team that only gave up one other goal in their five matches. Halilhodzic will have left the tournament with some positives, none more so than the play of 22-year-old Gervinho. Currently one of the top scorers in France with Lille, the youngster proved that he is a more than adequate addition to the already potent attack that includes Drogba, Kalou and Bakary Kone. It was his opener against Ghana at the end of a brilliant combination that showed what the Ivorians are truly capable of.
Undoubtedly Côte d'Ivoire’s quarter-final defeat is their biggest disappointment, and the two defensive lapses that allowed Algeria to head home the equalising and then winning goals should haunt their defence. However, the West Africans will feel they lost against a spirited Algerian side, which never gave up the fight even when they were trailing by a goal. But, just as two years ago at the CAN in Ghana when they were trounced 4-1 by Egypt in the semi-finals, there is a feeling that the weight of expectations may ultimately be what is weighing them down at crucial times in the tournament.
As they prepare for the FIFA World Cup in June, Cote d’Ivoire will play Korea Republic on 3 March before kicking off their World Cup with the double punch of Portugal and Brazil before finishing Group G against Korea DPR.