Sven-Goran Eriksson’s highly fancied Côte d'Ivoire side make their grand entrance at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ on Tuesday against Portugal in Port Elizabeth. Ahead of the Group G clash, defender Kolo Toure, talking exclusively to FIFA, describes his hopes and ambitions for the tournament as a whole.
FIFA: Kolo, you couldn’t hide your joy at Sven-Goran Eriksson’s appointment as Côte d'Ivoire coach. Why were you so happy with the decision?
Kolo Toure: Because he’s hugely experienced, plain and simple. He’s already coached the national teams of massive countries like England and Mexico. At club level, he’s won plenty of trophies, and has been in charge at places like Lazio and Manchester City. It was crucial for us to attract a coach with a great track record and lots of experience. I’m still delighted that he chose us.
What has changed since his arrival?
He 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 team 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. That’s what we’ve been working on, and we hope that it’ll bear fruit, starting with our first match versus Portugal.
Where do you think the original problems that you mention stemmed from?
We found it impossible to talk to each other honestly, to offer constructive criticism or to completely focus at training sessions. All of these factors began to create an unhealthy atmosphere within the squad. If you want to become a great international side, you need 23 players who are humble and uncomplicated, and are all willing to fight for the same cause. On the pitch, everyone has to put aside personal issues and think only of the team.
Eriksson has been focusing a lot on your defence since your FIFA World Cup preparations began. Why is this?
Because we need to learn to defend better, and as a team. By ‘as a team’, I mean defending collectively, in a system where everyone does his bit, from striker to goalkeeper. In modern football, you win nothing without a strong defence.
Did Didier Drogba’s injury affect team morale, at least at first ?
During the first few days, it was really hard to take, because Didier is our captain and best player, after all. He’s a top goalscorer who has always stood up to be counted when we’ve found ourselves with our backs against the wall. But, as I’ve said already, there are 23 players here representing Côte d’Ivoire, and it’s all those players together who’ll win us matches, not Didier Drogba on his own. We’ll deal with whatever comes our way. What counts now is that everyone fights for each other, side by side.
Your friend Didier Zokora may start alongside you in central defence. Any thoughts?
You know, we’ve already played beside each other in defence over the years. When we were young, we had a good time together: he called me [Fabio] Cannavaro and I called him [Alessandro] Nesta. Didier is a natural defender, with the right mentality to excel in the position. He’s a very intelligent player.
What lessons did you retain from Germany 2006?
A real mix of things. On the one hand, there remains the nagging feeling that we missed a great chance to do something big. On the other hand, we were very young and inexperienced, and it was our first World Cup. The way we had qualified made us feel that just being there was already a huge achievement. This time around, it’s different. Our ambitions are greater. We’re all more focused on the same goal. And playing on our home continent gives us even more desire to surpass ourselves.