After a chastening CAF Africa Cup of Nations semi-final exit at
the hands of eventual champions Egypt, Côte d'Ivoire turned to
Vahid Halilhodzic in their hour of need, handing him the job of
getting their talented team back on track. The no-nonsense
Halilhodzic has been given a clear brief: to restore the morale of
the wounded Elephants and the lustre of a golden generation that
has thus far failed to fulfilled its massive promise.
The much-travelled tactician does not have long to wait to find out if his remedies have taken effect. After all, the arduous qualifying campaign for Angola 2010 and South Africa 2010 gets under way on Sunday with a match against Mozambique in the heat of Abidjan, the starting point of another adventure for the intrepid Ivorians.
"Unlike his predecessors in the job, Mr Halilhodzic has been handed total control of the national team," the president of the Ivorian FA Jacques Bernard Anouma recently told the country's press. "He is both the coach and the team manager."
Those comments are an indication of the impact the resounding 4-1 defeat to the Egyptians had on the country's football chiefs, who have given the former Lille and Paris Saint Germain coach complete freedom to make whatever changes he sees fit.
One man sure to figure large in the new boss's future plans is stalwart defensive midfielder Didier Zokora, who gave FIFA.com an exclusive insider's view on the extended bout of soul-searching that followed the Elephants' travails in Ghana and their plans for recovery.
"You have to be completely open about things," says
the Tottenham Hotspur man. "
While Zokora does not advocate a complete overhaul of the team, he knows the new man in charge has plenty of work on his hands. "When you look at the team on paper, all the players we've got, it's a great side, but the fact remains we haven't won anything and that's something we've been asking ourselves about. In football you only remember the winners. It's been said lots of times that we're the best team in Africa but that doesn't mean anything unless we win some trophies."
While conscious of the tremendous potential he and his international team-mates possess, the former Saint Etienne player sees that as a possible reason why they came up short in Ghana.
"It's true people thought we would do better than we did, but at least that shows they have faith in us. Maybe that made us a little over-confident. We thought 'OK, we're the favourites', and we just let things happen. Before we played Egypt we'd never been behind in a game, so going a goal down to them was a new situation for us. We lost our cool and we didn't know how to react. We talked before every game and motivated each other but maybe we just ended up putting too much pressure on ourselves."
Frustrated by the failures of the past, Zokora knows time is running out for the richest crop of talent the country has ever produced. "Some of us are 28 and 29 now," he continues. "The next Africa Cup of Nations and the 2010 World Cup will probably be the last chance for the likes of Drogba, Kolo Toure and me. I'd love to win a trophy to go out in style, with my head held up high. We've been around for nearly ten years now and we haven't achieved anything. That's frustrating for us and it would be a huge waste if we didn't win a trophy with this generation."
Few would disagree with that, although as Zokora explains, their inability to win silverware has not been for want of self-analysis. "We've asked ourselves what the problem is but we can never find the answer," he admits. "It's hard to take. Nevertheless, there's no reason whatsoever why we can't win the Africa Cup of Nations one day, and I hope 2010 will be our year. The 2006 World Cup helped us mature a lot. We played against Netherlands and Argentina and that will stand us in good stead."
The Ivorians begin their double qualification campaign with
assignments in the next three weeks against Mozambique, Madagascar
and Botswana, three of Africa's lesser lights. The perfect
opportunity, then, for Halilhodzic to get to grips with his job and
for Zokora and his colleagues to take stock of their recovery
'The World Cup is the pinnacle'
The pressure is sure to crank up in the coming months, however, particularly as the fans back home fully expect their heroes to be present when the curtain rises on the first FIFA World Cup™ finals to be held on African soil. Zokora, for one, is confident he and his team-mates will not disappoint.
"The World Cup is the pinnacle and playing in the 2006 finals was a dream for us. Standing there, listening to the national anthems before the Argentina game was amazing. It was an unforgettable moment. So you can just imagine what it would be like for us to play in Africa. We can't miss that. We really can't.
"It's something to be very proud of, the biggest thing an African footballer can probably aspire to," he continues. " . It's all set up for an African team to win the trophy and that would be the most beautiful of gifts. That would be something to celebrate for every African, whichever country won. Naturally, though, I'd love it to be Côte d'Ivoire."
And with that the smiling Spurs favourite takes his leave to continue his preparations for Sunday's match, the start of what he hopes will be a obstacle-free journey all the way to the Rainbow Nation.