“As our failures at the African Cup of Nations in Ghana and now Angola show, there’s no way anyone can say Côte d’Ivoire are stronger than they were in 2006. We fought much more as a unit before, and we need to get that feeling of solidarity and that fighting spirit back. They’re essential at the highest level.”
That blunt assessment of the Elephants recent performances comes from Ivorian striker Kouassi Gervais Yao, speaking exclusively to FIFA.com. With just three months to go before the ball gets rolling at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the Lille forward, who is better known simply as Gervinho, is well aware that the current Côte d’Ivoire team are less than the sum of their formidable individual parts.
Knocked out in the quarter-finals at Angola 2010, the Ivorians also flattered to deceive at Ghana 2008 and need to draw conclusions from their recent travails if they are to get the best out of a golden generation that is still without a trophy to its name.
Appointed in May 2008 to take the team in a new direction and to the pinnacle of African football, Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic ultimately fell short. Following that last-eight defeat to Algeria in Angola, during which the Desert Foxes scored an injury-time equaliser and then hit the winner in the first minute of extra time, Halilhodzic was sacked, much to Gervinho’s chagrin.
“It’s two years’ work that’s gone up in smoke,” laments the 22-year-old forward, who has kept in touch with the ousted coach. “I’ve phoned him and he’s taken it badly, which I understand. We have to turn the page now though, and we’ll have to start again with a new coach. That’s the FA’s decision, but if he wasn’t able to turn things around in over two years, then it’s obviously up to the players to do it.
“The ability is there and we need to make the next coach’s job easier,” continues Gervinho, who began his career with Academie Guillou before taking the same path into European football as Yaya Toure and Emmanuel Eboue by joining Belgian club Beveren. “I am sure we can take something positive out of this setback and come back stronger. With a new coach coming in, everyone’s going to have to make sacrifices to win a place in the side.”
Too much talent?
If last week’s 2-0 friendly defeat to Korea Republic is anything to go by, Halilodzic’s former charges are still struggling to come to terms with his sudden dismissal. Even so, Gervinho sees no need to be despondent about his side’s chances at South Africa 2010.
“We’re not starting from scratch, but the new coach will have his own ideas and everyone will need to make every effort to either stay in the starting line-up or win a place,” he continues. “There are no problems in the team. The older players give guidance to the younger ones like me, and we all have the same ideas. The only problem is that there’s so much individual talent in the side that sometimes we let standards slip.” Given the rampaging performances of the team’s mainstays with their clubs, that is a view many experts also agree with.
Much of the blame for Côte d’Ivoire’s problems of late has been apportioned to the defence, which was responsible for some worrying lapses in Angola. “Defensively we need to play more as a team,” says Gervinho in agreement. “Defence is everyone’s job, from Didier [Drogba] to Kolo [Toure], and we need to defend as a team. Sometimes we just stand by and let someone else make the effort.”
The Lille man’s frank analysis merely confirms the impression the Elephants have given over the last few months. During the qualifiers for South Africa 2010, the Ivorians showed signs of complacency, a shortcoming that invariably gets punished in major tournaments, as it did in that dramatic quarter-final loss to the Algerians.
“We’ve got all this experience and yet we couldn’t finish the job off. It just doesn’t make sense,” he says in reference to that defeat, which came after the Ivorians had taken the lead with barely a minute of normal time remaining. “It was a huge disappointment. We really wanted that trophy.”
Drogba standing tall
With only three months to go to the finals, whoever replaces “Coach Vahid” will have very little room for manoeuvre. That makes it even more important for the leading lights in the team, chief among them Didier Drogba, to shoulder their responsibilities.
“He’s our captain and that’s not going to change,” ventures Gervinho, a full international since 2007 and a former skipper of the U-21 team. “He always puts himself in his friends’ shoes and never looks down at you. He stood and took the criticism for us after the Algeria game. He’s always had things to say and he always will, no matter who the next coach is.”
Injured since February after a superb run in which he scored 11 league goals in 12 games, Gervinho is in the midst of the first lengthy lay-off of his career. “I wouldn’t put it down to the African Cup of Nations necessarily,” he explains. “I’m just feeling tired generally. It was difficult to accept to begin with, but I’m feeling better about things now. I’m resting properly and that’s going to help me come back even stronger.”
That is sure to come as good news for the new man at the Ivorian helm, whoever he may be.