As Côte d’Ivoire laboured to qualification against a stout Senegal side, it seemed like the past eight years of this Ivorian 'golden generation' had been summed up in a single match. In familiar fashion, it took a heroic performance from Boubacar Barry, an assist by Yaya Toure and a goal from Salomon Kalou to seal their progress.
With this result, the Elephants booked their place at a third consecutive FIFA World Cup™. Yet despite going undefeated throughout qualification, and making it 21 qualifiers without a loss by eliminating Senegal in Casablanca, their run was far from easy given the weight of expectation constantly surrounding the team.
Furthermore, while their talent is without doubt, this Côte d’Ivoire side has certainly had its fair share of demons and disappointments. For the last eight years, Didier Drogba and Co have enthralled football fans everywhere without winning a single title.
During this period, they have cried and cursed the fates without ever blaming their own inconsistency. Speaking after their decisive 1-1 draw in the second leg against Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire coach Sabri Lamouchi summed it up perfectly: “We couldn’t string three passes together, it was one of those nights. But the most important thing is qualifying.”
Drogba looking for some luck
One man savouring this result is Drogba. Scoring three times in the second round of CAF qualifiers, the veteran striker spearheaded the group stage’s third best attack - his side’s 15 strikes behind the tallies of only Ghana and Egypt.
Now the Elephants’ combative front-man is looking ahead to Brazil, the venue for this generation’s international swansong: “It’s the third straight World Cup for a small country like Côte d’Ivoire,” the Galatasaray target man said.
“I’m proud to be a part of this adventure and to be making footballing history in my country. We want to do something special at this World Cup. The last two have been difficult so we’re hoping for a bit more luck this time around and we want to get through the first round at the very least.”
And this sense of pride was shared by Kalou: "It hasn’t been easy so far but when we all work for one another, we get our just rewards. Although some will say that we didn’t deserve it,” he said, taking a swipe at the permanent criticism that surrounds this crop of players.
“When things are tough, the important thing is to knuckle down,” the Lille striker continued. “My goal and our qualification are not about revenge. Football is a team game and all of the players deserve this reward.”
Lamouchi proud despite his side’s troubles
With players like Wilfried Bony, 24 years old and top scorer in the Eredivisie last season, Côte d’Ivoire are now looking to prolong this golden age. Since taking charge in May 2012, former French international Lamouchi has worked hard to develop this next generation, symbolised by Bony, Max Gradel, Lacina Traore and Serge Aurier.
The 2013 CAF African Cup of Nations quarter-finalists have been careful not to stray from their trusted charges, however, with Barry, Kolo and Yaya Toure, Arthur Boka, Romaric, Didier Zokora, Jean-Jacques Gosso, Kalou and Drogba all remaining in the fold. Boasting 48 caps at the age of just 26, Roma winger Gervinho represents a key link between these two generations.
Clearly aware of the problems his side have had and of the high stakes involved, Lamouchi remains upbeat despite the turbulence. "In all honesty, despite suffering at times over the last 18 months, I am extremely proud,” the former Parma midfielder said. “The players have worked hard and we’ve somehow managed to build something. Now we have to keep heading down this path.”
Ultimately, despite several lengthy continental campaigns since 2005 - losing in the final of the African Cup of Nations in 2006 and 2012, reaching the semis in 2008 and the quarters in 2010 and 2013 - this side has never reached the Round of 16 at a World Cup. Now, Brazil 2014 will provide this golden generation with one last chance to go down in history.