Elephant Calves hope they have the weight

A restoration of calm and a growing semblance of order in Côte d’Ivoire means that people’s lives should hopefully soon be returning to normality. Football will take its place in that world, and it could not have come at a better time for the country’s under-17 side, preparing for the FIFA World finals later this year.

The civil conflict in Abidjan brought football to a virtual stand still, postponing the start of the league and keeping the young squad from training as had been planned. But coach Alain Gouamene has said that he thinks they will be able to catch up quickly, and he has plans to ensure his young charges are in top form by the time they get to Mexico for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, which kicks off on 18 June.

We have a core that is already in place and at the African championship they played at a really high level.
Ivorian coach Alain Gouamene

“There are two months go and a lot of work to do, but in a fortnight’s time we will start to seriously begin our preparations to ensure we are ready,” the former international goalkeeper said. Gouamene will begin work with the locally based players in Côte d’Ivoire and then proceed to France, where the Ivorians are to train at altitude to prepare before going straight to Mexico. The Elephanteaux Cadets (Elephant Calves) will be following in the footsteps of their own senior national side last year who used the Swiss Alps to prepare for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa.

The bright orange-clad senior team has of course captured the imagination not only of fellow Ivorians, but also Africans and supporters everywhere with their brand of potent, attacking football. And surely the junior version will be trying their best to win labels such as ‘the next’ Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure or Gervinho. Ideally there will be medals as well as plaudits for the team that many observers considered the most talented at the CAF U-17 African Championships in Rwanda. Historically, Côte d’Ivoire’s best result in a FIFA tournament came at the U-17 World Cup in 1987 when the side pocketed the bronze medal.

In rarefied air
The Ivorian under-17 side are planning to go to the French Alps to best prepare for the unusually taxing physical conditions that await them in the thin air of Mexico this June. Gouamene, who was his country’s hero when they won the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in a heart-stopping penalty shootout over Ghana in 1992, is also planning personnel changes, although he says nothing will be drastic.

At the continental finals, Côte d’Ivoire finished top of their group and made headlines by reaching the semi-finals and securing their trip to Mexico with a lopsided 4-1 win over defending African champions Gambia. A narrow 1-0 defeat to the hosts in the last four was followed by a sluggish loss in the third-place match and has surely left Goumaene and his charges with a thirst for more success.  

“We have a core that is already in place and at the African championship they played at a really high level. They have experience,” he said earlier this year, although he confirms that he is still in search of a stronger squad to take to Mexico. “There is a lot of young Ivorian talent at many of the youth academies of the top French clubs, and I will go to see some of them and assess whether they have a role to play in the squad.”

Gouamene might find he also needs to seek out a replica of himself. He is currently juggling two jobs at the Ivorian Football Federation, that of under-17 coach and also of the Olympic team. His under-23 side are due to play Liberia in Monrovia later today in the second leg of a preliminary tie for London 2012. With the next round of Olympic qualifiers to be played in early June, just before the FIFA U-17 World Cup finals, he will have a tough act trying to double up on both benches.