Anyone who's followed Côte d’Ivoire’s progress at the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE will know that the side is always up for a fight. The key to success with such a battling approach is a sturdy defence, and the Ivorian side are certainly not lacking in that department.
While Italy, Uruguay and New Zealand enjoyed varying degrees of success when pitted against the Baby Elephants’ compact and disciplined defensive unit in the group stage of the competition, they all found it extremely tough.
In the Round of 16, Morocco found themselves heading home having failed to find sufficient space to exploit their speed and considerable attacking talents against a massed west-African defensive shield. Now, the next battle awaiting Ibrahima Kamara’s men is their quarter-final clash against Argentina.
Out of all the teams present in the United Arab Emirates, this Côte d’Ivoire side are undoubtedly the most low-profile. Despite being African champions, the Baby Elephants arrived on Emirati soil under the radar having gone 26 years without progressing beyond the Round of 16 in the competition. This time around, they did just enough to get beyond the group stage, qualifying as one of the best third-place finishers.
The competition’s other remaining African team, Nigeria, could not be more different. After putting on several flowing exhibitions of champagne football, their goal-scoring frenzies have caught everyone’s attention. Yet while this tactic undoubtedly serves to intimidate the opposition, it also means opponents have a very good idea of what they will be coming up against.
Golden Eaglets coach Manu Garba was happy to speak at length to FIFA.com about this style of play even before the competition kicked off. His Ivorian counterpart, in contrast, has lowered a veil of secrecy around his group, making it hard to coax information from him or his players and giving as little as possible away in laconic press conferences. Furthermore, while Garba advocates a sense of freedom among his players within his brand of 'total football,' Kamara has instilled an almost military discipline in his ranks.
Yet despite this clash of methodologies, the end-result is the same as both African heavyweights find themselves in the quarter-finals of UAE 2013 with a realistic chance of being crowned champions.
The Baby Elephants must first overcome the Albiceleste on Saturday 2 November in Sharjah. Speaking to the press the day before the match, Kamara gave little away: “I’d like to congratulate Argentina on their progress to the quarter-final,” he said. “They’re a good team and have more experience than us, but we can beat anybody,” the coach concluded, before admitting that injuries and suspensions will make his task more difficult.
In the Argentina camp, meanwhile, coach Humberto Grondona found himself dealing with an unfamiliar opposition game plan while preparing for the clash, facing an Ivorian line-up with players wearing unconventional numbers in each position.
Seemingly unimpressed by this attempt to confuse his players, Grondona played down its importance when speaking to FIFA.com: “It doesn’t really matter if such and such a number is or isn’t playing in the traditional position,” the South American coach said. “That doesn’t stop us from analysing them.”
“It doesn’t make a huge difference if the number 10 is playing at centre-back or numbers 2 and 3 are up front,” he continued. “The important thing for us is that we know that their number 7, Junior Ahissan, will be suspended for the match. While it’s perhaps their strategy or their way or working to want to hide things, we’ve always been open and cooperative and it hasn’t been a problem.”
Either way, when the talented South American side comes up against this solid Côte d’Ivoire outfit, an epic battle is guaranteed.