The bonds in this Côte d'Ivoire squad are strong. “We’ve known each other a long time,” Liverpool defender Kolo Toure told FIFA.com about the closeness, the laid-back atmosphere that pervades Les Elephants’ traveling camp at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. “We are family. A lot of us grew up together from boys into men.”
When they arrived in Recife, on Brazil’s northern coast, the first order of business wasn’t a training session or a team meeting. Coach Sabri Lamouchi didn’t gather them around a chalkboard to talk tactics. The players, in garish orange tracksuits, completely identifiable as the world superstars they are, hung around the lobby of their hotel.
We’re like a family. The young boys and the older guys, we’re all the same here and we have a good time together.
Didier Drogba posed for photographs with fans. He flashed a smile and was as accessible as Yaya Toure, Kolo’s brother, one of Manchester City’s best players this season and a three-time African footballer of the year.
“There’s a special feeling in this team, always, when we come together,” said Drobga, a UEFA Champions League winner and idol at former club Chelsea. His team-mates buzzed around him, some in conversation with hotel staff over bits of this and that: ice and WiFi passwords, the mundane odds and ends of any guest. Serge Aurier leaned against a marble wall, the Arsenal target and the team’s youngest player joking and giggling with Salomon Kalou and Roma’s Gervinho, his unmistakable braids dangling.
There’s talk of a stroll along Recife’s beachfront. The usual objections are raised, and quickly squashed. It's what the players wanted and it was going to happen. Let the security people worry. “We’re like a family for sure,” Kalou, formerly of Chelsea now with Lille in France, commented. “The young boys and the older guys, we’re all the same here and we have a good time together.”
Kolo Toure, 33, is a veteran playing in his last World Cup. He shares a similar opinion. “It’s always a different atmosphere from our clubs,” said the former Arsenal star, now with Liverpool in the twilight of his career. “We’re all from the same country,” he added, shaking hands with a winking member of the team’s staff. “We have the same attitude and the same mentality.”
The entire starting XI of this Ivorian team comes from Europe’s top leagues. The players, to a man, are just finishing up a grueling ten months of football at the highest level on European shores. There is relief in coming together with familiar faces, old friends and even literal family in the case of the Toure boys. It’s not to say the Africans are taking it easy, on holiday here in Brazil. “We may look relaxed,” Drogba said, those famous eyes turning steely and hard. “But this is no joke for us. We’re here to work and to do the job. We want to play hard, play as a team and be focused.”
Intensity in training
The exact ratios of relaxation to intensity in the Côte d'Ivoire team are hard to calculate, but Lamouchi’s men are all business in training, intense and uncompromising. A misplaced cross from Aurier is met with a volley of colourful French verbiage. The youngster clearly demands much of himself. A lazy pass, no matter who’s responsible, is identified and denounced by the veterans. Tackles come in thick and fast too. Time stops and breath is held as Yaya Toure is sent bundling to the turf by hard-man Cheick Tiote. No complaints from the captain and global superstar.
Their 2-1 opening win against Japan at the Arena Pernambuco was a testament to the Africans’ preparations. A goal down early, they didn’t let their heads drop. When Drogba came off the bench in the 62nd minute he didn’t mince on to the pitch with a sulk, hands on hips, aggravated at being left out of the starting XI. He charged around the grass. He stalked and frightened the Japanese defence and pushed open holes for Gervinho and Wilfried Bony to score. He did his part for the team, for the family.
Kolo Toure, left on the bench for the whole game, was the loudest cheerleader. He embraced everyone at the final whistle and charged down the tunnel shouting in jubilation.
Once the Ivorians were in their dressing room, they stayed there. Shouts and laughter, the sounds of family, seeped through the cement walls. “We need to keep putting this togetherness on the field,” Kolo Toure said, his expression satisfied and kind. A date with Colombia awaits. “Now we'll relax,” he concluded, shuffling toward a waiting plane. “But we won’t play relaxed.”