As a team that is decorated with a galaxy of stars, a lot of expectations rest on Côte d'Ivoire as African nations eagerly anticipate their quest for maiden glory at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ next summer.
And the side's star players are not shy about their desire to be counted among the early tournament favourites. Côte d'Ivoire became the third African side to book their place at South Africa 2010 thanks to a goal by their inspirational captain Didier Drogba, whose sole strike was enough to send the Elephants to their second successive FIFA World Cup. FIFA.com caught-up with the Côte d'Ivoire captain following their FIFA World Cup qualification en route from Malawi in Blantyre.
FIFA.com: You scored the vital goal that took Côte d'Ivoire to the 2010 FIFA World Cup to cap what has been a flawless campaign. How does it feel to qualify for the first ever FIFA World Cup on African soil?
Didier Drogba: First of all, I want to say this is a collective effort. Everything we achieve, we do it as a team. That goal was important, not just for me, but for the rest of my team-mates. We are happy to be part of this World Cup, we are very proud to be here. We believe this is an opportunity for Africans to show what they can do to the rest of the world. This is a period whereby we all have to be proud of being Africans. We know that this World Cup will change a lot of stereotypes about Africa; it will educate people more about this beautiful continent.
A lot will be expected from you and the team at South Africa 2010.
People expect a lot from us now. We have been winning games, we are playing good football. From a personal point of view, I just want to do well and help the team achieve its goal. We don't play for individual glory, but for that of the team. At the World Cup, we won't only be representing people of Côte d'Ivoire, but also millions of African people. We are not there to add the numbers, we are coming to the World Cup to compete.
People say this is the best time for an African team to qualify for the semi-finals or even win the FIFA World Cup. Do you think Côte d'Ivoire can achieve that feat?
I have to say that this is going to be a big challenge, but we are really motivated for this one, it's a special project for us. We know it won't be easy. There are great teams like Brazil and Germany who have been winners of the World Cup in the past.
My friends and I want to make history in South Africa, we want to change the way people see Africa. This World Cup is a great honour for the African people. It is a huge honour for us African people to play at this World Cup, on African soil. Now what is left is for us to work together in making Africa proud. What is important is that we have to change the image of Africa, we have to show the rest of the world what Africa can do. We have capable teams like Ghana, Egypt, Cameroon and Côte d'Ivoire who have some of the top players in the world. Let's wait and see after next year and we will revisit that subject.
What about the hosts, South Africa?
When I started playing international football, South Africa was a very strong country in Africa. Like any other team, I think they are going through a rough patch. But we saw their performance at the [FIFA] Confederations Cup; they did very well during that competition.
People ask us about our secret, and honestly, there is no secret. We just work harder.
At the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany, the general feeling was that Côte d'Ivoire had underachieved, considering the type of football you had played. You had a good team, but you did not go beyond the group stages.
(Laughs) We learned a lot from that tournament. It was difficult for us. It was our first World Cup, we were happy to be there. And, to be fair, we had a tough group. When you are pitted against some of the best teams in your first World Cup, that is not easy. But that is not an excuse. Personally, I felt we could have gone further. We played well, we played good football.
Sometimes you need a little bit of luck in football. We are now better prepared. We now know what to expect at that level. The most important thing is, we have kept the nucleus of that squad. We are still the same family. We don't know who will be our opponents in 2010, but we won't worry about that. They must worry about us. We won't spend the whole time thinking about them. I think we are now more comfortable with ourselves as a team.
What has been the secret of this Côte d'Ivoire team?
We are like a big family, the guys understand each other. In any team where you have many stars, it is important that they find something in common that brings them closer. And, for us, we all love playing for our country; we all have the same goal and that is to make our country proud. People ask us about our secret, and honestly, there is no secret. We just work harder.
You have been in South Africa a couple of times recently. What are your impressions of their readiness for the 2010 FIFA World Cup?
South Africa is a beautiful country and the people there are very friendly. One of the things that has impressed me is their infrastructure. I was there during the Confederations Cup and their new stadiums were very impressive. I think no one doubts that they will be ready because we can see the stadiums. All that is left is for all teams to qualify for the tournament. I think they will host a very successful tournament. This is a World Cup for Africa and it has to be a success.
Last season you struggled a bit to hit your stride at Chelsea. What has been the reason behind your recent top form at club level?
In football, you have to go through some dry seasons and tough situations and maybe last season was like that. However, I don't think it was as bad as some people have made it seem. But that is history, I'm enjoying myself now.