Côte d’Ivoire will carry the mantle of favourites into Sunday’s CAF Africa Cup of Nations final, a pressure they say they are happy to deal with, but they warn they are mindful of the abilities of opponents Zambia. The Elephants are Africa’s highest-placed team in the FIFA/Coca-Coca World Ranking and that standing has been confirmed by an efficient march to the final.
Five successive wins, nine goals scored and none conceded understates a steely determination for a talent-laden squad who have been in a similar situation in recent editions of the Nations Cup but failed to live up to their star billing. “We accept that the pressure is on us but we are staying calm as we consider this final,” reiterated coach Francois Zahoui after a hard-fought 1-0 win over Mali in the midweek semi-final.
Côte d’Ivoire are Goliath to Zambia's David, with the Zambians making unlikely progress to the final for the first time since 1994. The underdogs had, by their own admission, set their target on a spot in the last-eight, but they have more than exceeded expectations after beating Ghana 1-0 in their semi-final on Wednesday to reach the final in Libreville. But iconic striker Didier Drogba said he was not surprised with the result or the identity of the opponent on Sunday. “They are tough, and we are going to have to work on the mistakes we made in our semi-final in the days before the match,” he said.
“It’s been a long wait to get to the final,” added 30-year-old Kolo Toure, another of the high-profile players in the star-studded Elephants line-up. “But it will be a certainly be a tough game against Zambia.” Salomon Kalou said it had taken a hard 18 months work to reach this point for the Ivorians, and they were not prepared to let the effort slip by unrewarded. “To get to this level has taken a lot of work and to get to the final shows what we can do," said the Chelsea forward before hitting a familiar note: "But it will be a difficult contest."
Zambia firing right
Zambia will not be used to such stars of the African game going out of their way to recognise them as a difficult foe, but their work over the last fortnight has made many sit up and take notice. Despite a squad of relatively little-known, mostly Africa-based players, Zambia's victory over the Black Stars affirmed the potential that French coach Herve Renard has been espousing since the first round when he warned that the Chipolopolo (Copper Bullets) were a team not being taken seriously enough.
However Renard, in his second stint with the team, had to implore his players to dig deep in the closing stages of the semi-final win as they held on desperately against the Ghanaians. “I told them that if they let this slip it would be something they would regret for the rest of their lives,” he said frankly.
Now they will need further mental and physical strength against the Ivorians in the biggest game of their lives at Stade l’Amitie in the Gabon capital. Said dynamic winger Rainford Kalaba, who has been one of the stars of the tournament in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon: “It is still not done, and Zambia have one more game to go before we can be on top of Africa."
Zahoui has much the same conviction, with a note of respect for his veteran side. “Luckily we have 23 players who have been clear in their minds, and they want to end this tournament at the top.”