Tuesday sees the first meeting between Côte d’Ivoire and Portugal in the history of the FIFA World Cup™, in a Group G encounter that promises both plenty of excitement and goalmouth action. In their second consecutive appearance at the global showpiece, the west Africans will be out to prove that their growing continental reputation is wholly merited. “For this generation of players not to win anything would be a shame,” says Ivorian midfielder, Romaric. Winning a match, their group or even the whole tournament will depend on the answer to two crucial questions: Will Didier Drogba play? And what kind of boost will the arrival of new coach Sven-Goran Eriksson provide?
Standing between Côte d’Ivoire and an opening victory in the competition is a Portuguese side dogged by inconsistency. The 2006 semi-finalists were forced to qualify via a play-off, but will hope to replicate the good form they showed in their pre-event friendly matches. The Iberian team will rely on talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, unplayable on his day, to get them off to the best possible start in what many regard as the toughest group of all.
Côte d’Ivoire-Portugal, Group G, Port Elizabeth, Wednesday 15 June, 16.00 (local time)
Appointed in March of this year, Eriksson will take charge of the Elephants in a competitive match for the first time against Portugal. It was the former England coach’s previous experience in the FIFA World Cup – reaching the quarter-finals in both 2002 and 2006 – that won him the job, and if the reaction of his players is anything to go by, he has already made a considerable impact. What effect the uncertainty regarding Drogba’s potential participation will have is not yet clear, however.
Facing Eriksson’s men is a Lusitanian side that made surprisingly heavy work of qualifying for the tournament, picking up just one win from the first five matches of their campaign. A timely return to form brought A Selecção das Quinas firmly back into contention, with eight unanswered goals in four games sending them through to an ultimately successful play-off tie against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Deprived of the injured Nani, Carlos Queiroz’s men will need to rediscover that form if they have serious pretensions of emulating here in South Africa their achievements of four years ago in Germany.
Promoted to the role of captain in the absence of Didier Drogba for Côte d’Ivoire’s final warm-up matches, the Manchester City centre-back Kolo Toure is set to come up against a familiar old foe in Port Elizabeth. Cristiano Ronaldo, the former Old Trafford favourite, enjoyed some epic battles with the Ivorian during his time in the English Premier League. The in-form Real Madrid maestro, upon whose shoulders rest the hopes of an entire nation, will doubtless look to use those past experiences to gain an edge over the ex-Arsenal defender early on in the game.
74 - The number of days Sven-Goran Eriksson had at his disposal to prepare his Côte d’Ivoire team for the FIFA World Cup. The Swede took the reins of the Ivorian national side on 28 March 2010.
What they said
“Eriksson has put an added emphasis on playing as a team and not just as a collection of individuals. He has managed to change the mindset of the squad and of each player. We’ve always had good players, but have never been able to properly work together as an effective unit, defending and attacking as one,” Kolo Toure, Côte d’Ivoire defender
“Winning this game would make things much easier for us in terms of progressing in the competition. I want to be on top form so as to be recognised as the tournament’s best player, and to help the team to move forward,” Cristiano Ronaldo, Portuguese forward
Voice of the fans
“Many people underestimate Portugal, but I have a lot of confidence in our team. We haven’t really shown what we can do yet – the players know that their desire and team ethic can take them far. This team has the support of an entire people behind it. We’re one big family, and we stick together,” FIFA.com user Soniih’a.
Can Côte d’Ivoire go the farthest of all the African teams involved in the competition, even without Didier Drogba? Will Cristiano Ronaldo be among the top performers at South Africa 2010?