All signs point up for the Ivorians
© AFP

If Côte d'Ivoire’s golden generation of players was feeling depressed after their disappointing exit from the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ at the group stage, they are not showing it. In fact, since drawing with Portugal, losing to Brazil and beating Korea DPR in South Africa, Les Elephants have merrily picked up six victories in seven matches en route to hitting a best-ever 14th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings.

Those wins include a perfect four matches in qualifying for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations, which is enough to guarantee them a spot in the 2012 finals co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Also in that time, they claimed the impressive scalp of 2006 FIFA World Cup winners Italy behind a goal from Kolo Toure in Cesare Prandelli’s debut as Italian coach last August. A flat-footed set-back against Poland in Poznan at the end of last year was offset by a friendly win over Mali in February.

Everyone must compete to wear the shirt in order to give joy to the Ivorian public that supports us.
Francois Zahoui, Côte d’Ivoire coach

That 1-0 win over Les Aigles was significant as it marked the return of Didier Drogba to the fold after the big striker took a break from national team duty after groin surgery post-South Africa 2010. Sure enough the Chelsea icon was involved in the only goal against Mali, and the talisman went on to score both tallies in March’s 2-1 come-from-behind AFCON qualifying win against Benin. Drogba wasn’t done there, however, as he contributed two of Côte d'Ivoire’s six goals in an impressive 6-2 drubbing of the Squirrels in the return leg.

That victory in Cotonou qualified the Elephants for the continental championships next January, where again there will be pressure heaped on the supremely gifted orange-clad side to win some silverware. If they manage to do so, it will be just the second major trophy won by the west African nation after the 1992 Cup of Nations, which they famously claimed 11-10 on penalties over Ghana in the final.

Familiar faces keep form going
Drogba was missing for the high-profile win against Gli Azzurri, but Côte d'Ivoire’s strength in depth has been an open secret on the continent for years. In that case, Seydou Doumbia and Guy Demel combined to set up Toure for the winner, but in AFCON qualifying a very familiar cast of characters got on the scoresheet: Yaya Toure, Salomon Kalou, Emmanuel Eboue, Romaric, Didier Ya Konan, Gervinho and young Netherlands-based forward Wilfried Bony.

Throw in a few hard men like Didier Zokora and Cheik Tiote, and coach Francois Zahoui, who succeeded Sven Goran Eriksson after the FIFA World Cup, has a side brimming with talent. The emergence of a ‘new Drogba’ in the form of current FIFA U-17 World Cup Mexico 2011 top scorer (with nine goals in four matches), Souleymane Coulibaly is surely premature, but it only reinforces the feeling that the side are just one step away from winning another tournament.

It’s a depth of talent that Zahoui has been working hard to continue, and it’s a vital strength for a team in qualifying. The coach and his side have also had to deal with political instability, but he insists that the team is pulling hard in the same direction for their supporters. “My main motivation since taking over the team has been to form a homogenous group that sees no difference between the first choice and reserve players,” Zahoui said recently. “I’ve tried to give all of the players the spirit of conquest that allows them to take their chances when they come. It is the national team of Côte d'Ivoire, so there are no second-class players. Everyone must compete to wear the shirt in order to give joy to the Ivorian public that supports us.”

By the measure of world rankings, Zahoui is succeeding, and he has seen his team’s position climb from 27th last June during the FIFA World Cup to best on the continent. It’s certainly a long way since the Elephants were in the quicksand of 75th back in the middle of 2004. But for a nation that has produced two handfuls of the world’s best players in the last decade, rankings will not take the place of titles.