Top of Group C in the second round of African qualifying, Côte d’Ivoire appear well on course for a place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Ahead of the Elephants' next game on 8 June against bottom-placed Gambia, whom they beat 3-0 at home on the last matchday, FIFA.com caught up with their in-form striker Wilfried Bony, who is fresh from a prolific season in the Dutch Eredivisie.
Bony, who signed for Dutch top-flight side Vitesse Arnhem as a 21-year-old in early 2011, struck 31 league goals in the campaign just completed. In doing so he joined a select group including Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Afonso Alves, Luis Suarez, Mateja Kezman and Bas Dost, all of whom have broken the 30-goal mark in the Eredivisie in the past ten years.
"There has been a bit of luck involved," Bony said in his disarmingly frank manner. "But really I'm just reaping the rewards of training well, and benefiting from the team effort here at Vitesse, where everyone has always believed in me. Everything has been set up to help me score goals."
A graduate of the Cyril Domoraud Football Academy in his native Côte d’Ivoire, Bony is a likeable yet ambitious young player, whose goalscoring exploits have stirred considerable interest in the transfer market.
"In my position, and knowing where I come from, I need to score a lot of goals to prove my worth and get people talking about me. I won't get to play in the [UEFA] Champions League with Vitesse, and if that's what I want, I have no choice but to leave," said the forward, who dreams of playing in the English Premier League and German Bundesliga, but would also consider a move to France or Italy.
Cup of Nations catalyst
Bony, who was born in Bingerville in south-eastern Côte d'Ivoire, admits he has been torn between "being happy with what you've got", and a desire to "always try to do better". That conflict of philosophies was well illustrated after the arrival of former PSV Eindhoven coach Fred Rutten in 2012. Bony had scored 17 goals in all competitions as a central striker in 2011/12, but was redeployed by Rutten in a deeper role at the start of the following season.
When you are always in and around the penalty area, your finishing is a lot sharper.
The switch in positions gave him a chance to hone his technique and athleticism, and he made the best of his No10 role until three matches before his departure for the 2013 CAF Africa Cup of Nations. He knew, however, that his talents were better suited further up the pitch, and on his return he asked Rutter to allow him to spearhead Vitesse's attack once more.
"Playing behind a striker helped me to improve, particularly in my use of space and movement off the ball," said Bony. "I had to drop much deeper to get the ball. I had played in that position before moving to the Netherlands, when I was at Sparta Prague, and I sometimes also fill that role in the national team."
"But playing up front is where I feel most comfortable. When you are always in and around the penalty area, your finishing is a lot sharper," he continued, before adding: "When I returned from the 2013 Cup of Nations, I asked if I could go back to playing as a central striker."
Bony's request was granted and his positional swap paid off handsomely, prompting a late-season surge for both the player and his club. "When I returned from the Cup of Nations, the team were on a run of three straight defeats, and they really needed me," explained the former Issia Wazi man.
"We drew my first match back [2-2] against PSV, which gave us renewed confidence. After that we pulled out all the stops and went on a great run of nine wins in ten games. I worked twice as hard while I was at the continental championship, because I wasn't playing much and I knew I had the second half of the season with Vitesse ahead of me."
I've always tried to give them the support they need to perform at their best.
Goals by the truckload
It was not long before Bony was striking fear into opposing defences across the Netherlands. "Some teams used special tactics to deal with me, which is nothing unusual. They would try to take me out of the game by kicking and provoking me," said the Côte d'Ivoire international, who scored three braces and a hat-trick between 9 February and the final game of the season on 12 May.
When asked which three of his goals he will most remember from the season just gone, he had little hesitation: "My goal against PSV, at their ground, because it gave us three points; the one against Feyenoord, because it also proved decisive; and my equaliser in the derby against NAC Breda."
Bony has played alongside both Mike Havenaar and Jonathan Reis in attack this past season. But despite the pair's contrasting styles – "one is combative, the other is more technical and stylish" – he has never failed to adapt. "I've always tried to give them the support they need to perform at their best," said the striker, who has likewise been able to flourish under Rutten's leadership.
Côte d'Ivoire face Gambia and Tanzania on 8 and 16 June respectively, and Bony will be hoping to add to his tally of six goals in 18 international appearances. The Elephants will be without experienced forwards Didier Drogba and Gervinho against Gambia. But, with a relaxed and level-headed replacement like Bony waiting in the wings, Sabri Lamouchi can rest assured that his side's attack is in safe hands.