Kessie's Elephants still in the hunt

Ask any fan settled in his seat as a match is about to kick off to identify the respective No10s, and chances are he will look first to the midfield, or further forward.

In the case of Côte d’Ivoire at the FIFA U-17 World Cup UAE 2013, he would do well to shift his gaze further back. At the centre-back position, Franck Kessie is the man wearing the shirt number usually reserved for the team’s most creative and skilful player.

Not that the Ivorian captain is averse to embarking on a marauding run into the attacking half of the pitch, the ball under perfect control, to spring a surprise on the opposition. But don’t be fooled by appearances. “This is a feature of my game, but I have always been a defender. My foremost mission is to hold the defence together,” Kessie told

Leading by example In a brief chat Kessie exuded calmness, giving little away in his expression or his piercing gaze. It is a demeanour befitting of the no-nonsense central defender, who does not like to complicate matters on the field of play. “I think first about the team. I prefer not to talk about myself,” was his response when asked to describe his fighting qualities.

I’m not disappointed. I’m proud of the way we’ve been playing.

Wearing the captain’s armband, he exemplifies the pragmatic football his team, the African U-17 champions, have displayed at the Group B venue, the Ras Al Khaimah stadium. “It’s down to the tactics of our new coaching team. This is the way they want us to play. It has more to do with them than my leadership,” said the man who is the voice of coach Ibrahima Kamara on the pitch.

It is very different from the approach usually expected from African teams at this level, and a huge contrast with Nigeria, for example, the team they defeated in the African Championship final in April and who are causing a sensation in Group F in Al Ain. Côte d’Ivoire’s style of play is also far removed from that of their predecessors at the U-17 World Cup two years ago. The Elephants’ U-17 team at Mexico 2011 had Souleymane Coulibaly leading an attack that took some stopping.

In the first two matches at UAE 2013 we have seen a more circumspect team, built around a solid defence. This game plan was in evidence when lifting the African crown. Côte d’Ivoire conceded just three goals in five games at the tournament, and never more than one in a single match.

What might have been Kessie and his team-mates could easily have had four more points in the bag after their opening two games, but individual mistakes have cost them dear. After going down to Italy through a goal that Azzurri coach Daniele Zoratto admitted was fortunate, they conceded an equaliser against Uruguay in the third minute of injury time.

At the time all eleven players were encamped in their own half, trying to secure their advantage. That is not to say Côte d’Ivoire cannot play another way. In the first half they dictated the pace of the game, spending ample time in the Uruguay half, with the midfielders pushing up to support three dangerous forwards: the diminutive Kouame N’Guessan on the right with his clever link-up play, the towering Chris Bedia in the centre, whose 6'2" frame even dwarfs another six-footer, Meite Yakou, on the left. Yakou plays as a left winger, despite wearing the No3 shirt.

With the forward trio more involved and less detached, Côte d’Ivoire had chances to increase their lead and kill off Uruguay. This is what the team is focusing on, before facing New Zealand in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday. “We were close to winning, but let it slip at the end. That’s life. Now we have a good chance. I’m not disappointed. I’m proud of the way we’ve been playing,” said Kessie. The captain is evidently 100 per cent behind the tactics adopted, and believes they will make it to the knockout phase. Côte d’Ivoire can rely on their rock solid No10 while fighting for this goal.