It is one of football’s most perplexing puzzles: how can a team brimming with top-class talents fail to click and sometimes even implode? Why did the Brazil line-up led by Zico and Socrates fizzle out without winning a single title? And why did a France side featuring Zinedine Zidane and the Argentina of Juan Sebastian Veron both crash out at the group stage of the 2002 FIFA World Cup™?
The most recent international side to suffer this curious curse has to be Côte d'Ivoire. The country currently boasts its finest ever generation of players, with the likes of Didier Drogba, Kolo and Yaya Toure and Salomon Kalou all adding to the quality on display, but they have so far failed to lift a trophy or meet the major expectations placed on their shoulders.
Among the players who have thus far flattered to deceive is Romaric, but the powerful Elephants midfielder believes he has uncovered the solution to the problem. Having just completed a season blighted by injury and disappointment, the Sevilla man has more reason than most to want to enjoy success on South African soil, and in this exclusive interview with FIFA.com, he sounds the alarm in the hope that the present crop of players finally succeeds in converting skill into silverware.
FIFA.com: Sven-Goran Eriksson has announced a list of 30 players, which will be cut down to 23. How are you finding this waiting period, especially given that he is a new coach?
Romaric: With a new coach, everyone starts out equal again, so you have to seize your chance. For me, this World Cup is a superb opportunity. There may well be surprises in the final list. Once we get down to business, the important thing will be to think about the squad as a whole and to work hard during the preparation period so that we arrive in South Africa with as much confidence as possible.
Will some of that confidence come from doing things differently?
In the past, we’ve had a good squad but tactically we weren’t up to the task. We lacked understanding and the kind of positioning on the pitch a team of our quality should have. I hope that Eriksson will correct that. That’s what we expect from him above all. The mentality has to change too – we have to want to win together and finally demonstrate our potential.
In an interview with FIFA.com, Gervinho recently explained that the team needs to learn to defend together. Is that another of the changes you hope to see?
Obviously. Defensive work starts with the forwards; it’s the job of the whole squad. We need to defend together, but with everyone playing their role. We have huge problems with our collective positioning, though. We can’t afford to fall short of the minimum standard required in that area. We just can’t have a gap of 70 metres between the defenders and the forwards as we had in the last Africa Cup of Nations. Our lines aren’t close enough together and we’re not compact. If we correct those things, we’ll be able to aim for something big.
Do you think you can manage that in just three weeks, with a coach who is meeting the squad for the first time?
If we all join together and pull in the same direction, then yes. Three weeks is enough to develop another style of play and another approach. We can’t have another match like the one we had against Algeria in the Cup of Nations. That defeat exposed our weaknesses. The coach’s first words will be important and he’s experienced enough to know that. Beyond that, we need to have the desire, because we know what we need to do in terms of technique – we see that every day with our clubs. So it’s just a question of will, but I’ll say it again: we need to have everyone on the same footing. Competition allows a squad to progress; nobody should have a safe place in the side.
Didier Zokora, Boubacar Barry and Gervinho have described some of the same problems with the Elephants. Why haven’t they been rectified yet?
We know our faults, but it’s another thing altogether to want to fight for each other. Our passing game isn’t developed enough, we lack mobility and the player on the ball doesn’t have enough passing options. We need to stop giving the opposition gifts; we’re not at the training centre anymore. We can’t have central defenders trying to nutmeg players. We’re not here to show off or draw attention to ourselves but to help the national team win.
Do you think the Africa Cup of Nations disappointment can help the team advance?
The reaction of the public back in Côte d'Ivoire after the Cup of Nations showed us that if we fail again in South Africa, we shouldn’t hold out much hope of going home! I felt the anger and disappointment after the loss to Algeria. You have to understand that the Elephants are the only thing that brings the country together. When we play, there are no more divisions in terms of language, ethnicity or skin colour. We need to warm people’s hearts, even if it’s a love-hate relationship. Moreover, to not win anything with this generation of players would be more than sad: it would be a waste.
In personal terms, you have had a difficult season. How do you explain that?
I started the season injured and after that I had trouble coming back. I was back before the Africa Cup of Nations, but Vahid Halilhodzic didn’t call me up. Mentally, that was a blow. Soon afterwards, I got injured again. It’s the first time I’ve had so many problems in one season. I’ve never experienced that before, so I learnt a lot and at least drew something positive out of it.
Has that made you even more motivated to succeed at the FIFA World Cup?
Definitely. I’ve become stronger and physically I’m fresher than some of the other players. This World Cup will be a chance for me to make up for a difficult season. It’s the only thing on my mind.