Baby Elephants ready to take on the world
© AFP

Although Côte d'Ivoire are considered as one of the powerhouses of African football, their trophy cabinet remains remarkably empty and only two coaches have managed to take the west African nation to success on a continental stage. One of them is Ibrahim Kamara, who is in charge of the African champion U-17 side and will lead them to the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013 later this year.

When Côte d'Ivoire qualified for the finals of the 2013 African championships in Morocco, nobody really gave them much of a chance to end up with the trophy. Their task was made even more difficult after being drawn into a group with the overwhelming favourites Ghana and Nigeria. But by the end of the competition Ibrahim Kamara had joined 1992 CAF Africa Cup of Nations winning coach Yeo Martial as the only two Ivorian coaches to be in charge of a championship-winning side. 

However, winning the African under-17 title is not enough for Kamara, who now has his sights set on a much grander scale: success on the global stage. The Paris-based Kamara is an experienced coach, having spent 10 years in charge of the youth teams of USM Montargis, an amateur club based near Orleans, some 100 kilometres from Paris. And as such, he has very strong beliefs in the way he wants the players in his team to be. "A young player, entering our U-17 team, is told from the first day that he has no rights, but only duties. The first of those duties is to come up to the standard of those who were in the team before them. They have to honour the prestigious jersey they are going to wear. They also have to develop a smart sense of the game, it should be one of their focuses with the Baby Elephants."

Kamara's philosophy obviously did the trick in Morocco. His team drew their opening game against Congo 1-1, but then pushed the door to the semi-finals wide open with 1-0 win against Nigeria in their second group game. A goalless draw against Ghana saw the Baby Elephants advance to the round of the last four, but more importantly, book their ticket for the FIFA U-17 World Cup. A 2-1 semi-final win against the hosts Morocco took Kamara's team to a title match against the Golden Eaglets, and again Côte d'Ivoire triumphed as they won a tense penalty shoot-out 5-4 after the game ended 1-1. 

Spreading the net
Although the Baby Elephants of 2013 brought Côte d'Ivoire success, Kamara has embarked on a mission to explore other possibilities of broadening the player pool. "I went to Poitiers and Gueret for the U-17 French Championship semi-finals last May. I scouted some players from Paris Saint-Germain, and watched games between OGC Nice and AS Saint-Etienne, and FC Nantes and FC Sochaux." 

But it is not only in France that Kamara has been on the look-out as he recently travelled to England to look at players. "I spent a few days in London. I met three young Ivorian players and their parents, youngsters from Chelsea, Charlton Athletic and Stevenage. We keep focusing on our objective, which is to expand the scope of players, and integrate them to our project, the sooner being always the better."

A week-long camp in Bingerville in Côte d'Ivoire also afforded him an opportunity to look at players based in Africa. "This camp helped us review our U-16 players, and we were able to get a better idea of the level of this generation. We also took the opportunity to explain that we are looking for mature players and not just individual talents. The idea is to insist on team spirit, rather than to magnify the individualistic player." 

But even though he managed to win Côte d'Ivoire's first-ever African U-17 championship with the team, Kamara remains vigilant concerning the development of youth football in the country. "This success at the U-17 championship should not lead us to think that educating young players is a success in our country. We have to remain realistic. It is no secret that we do not do enough at the "grassroots level" of our football to get competitive youth teams on a sustainable basis. Are we able to draw level with great footballing nations? Do we get enough support for that?."

Kamara says that his success stems from the fact that he follows young players patiently. "Only that way will we have an exact idea of their value. This is actually a laboratory, and it is how we unearth great players," and Kamara, who is now looking forward to unleashing his charges on the rest of the world in the UAE from 17 October maybe all the way to the final on 8 November.