For Côte d'Ivoire, 2010 began with hopes, dreams and, yes, expectations of reigning over the continent and even conquering the world. Within weeks, however, the team tipped as Africa’s greatest FIFA World Cup™ hope were mired in criticism and on the hunt for a new coach after Vahid Halilhodzic paid a heavy price for Les Elephants’ quarter-final exit at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations.
That 3-2 defeat by Algeria was a blow that no-one in the Ivorian camp had seen coming, with Halilhodzic having led Didier Drogba and Co through a near-impeccable South Africa 2010 qualifying campaign. Nevertheless, according to Sol Bamba, this stunning slap in the face was exactly what the team needed.
The big centre-half, who played in every minute of that ill-fated Cup of Nations bid, insists that, far from denting Ivorian confidence, their Angolan agony actually provided a timely and humbling lesson ahead of the year’s main event in South Africa.
“I wouldn’t say the CAN knocked our confidence,” he told FIFA.com. “We’re a confident team and I don’t think we will go to the World Cup with any doubts about ourselves. For me, what happened in Angola was actually a really good wake-up call.
"Everyone was telling us that we were going to win this and win that, and we probably started to believe it ourselves, so going out the way we did showed everyone that it’s not that easy. What happened showed us that you need to fight for everything in tournaments like these, and fight until the very last second. I believe we have all learned from that experience.”
Nor was the importance of humility and dogged determination the only lesson dealt out in Angola. Equally important, says Bamba, was the manner in which Côte d'Ivoire’s over-reliance on their star forwards was brutally exposed, underlining the need for a more cohesive and unified approach. Yet, for all these shortcomings, the Hibernian player believes that, should Sven-Goran Eriksson succeed in striking the right balance,* Les Elephants* have every chance of making history.
We can’t afford to think ‘Ah, we have Drogba, Dindane, Kalou – they’ll make things happen’. We all need to take on that responsibility.
“I definitely think we have a chance of winning the World Cup,” he said. “We have world-class players who are playing for the best teams in Europe, we have experience, we have ability, so why not? We just need to play as a team.
"Individually, we have so much talent and, if we have had a fault, I would say it’s that we expected too much from individuals. But they can’t do it on their own. We can’t afford to think ‘Ah, we have Drogba, Dindane, Kalou – they’ll make things happen’. We all need to take on that responsibility and put more effort into attacking and defending as a team. If we can do that, I think we have a great chance. Why not think positive?”
Such optimism can only be admired, but Bamba is the first to admit that, before eyeing glory, Côte d'Ivoire must first focus on surviving what is arguably the tournament’s toughest section. Brazil, Portugal and Korea DPR await Eriksson’s side in a fearsome looking Group G, and the 25-year-old – who missed out on Germany 2006 – is eager to help his countrymen go one better than they managed against Argentina, the Netherlands and Serbia and Montenegro.
“We’re used to it now,” Bamba said, laughing. “This group is actually just as tough as 2006, if not tougher, but we still believe in ourselves. We’re more experienced than we were last time, and I think we have a stronger group of players too. We’re up against great teams but we’re a very good team ourselves and I know it won’t be easy to play against us.
"The first game (against Portugal) will be vital, of course. If we do well in that one, I think we have a great chance of going through. There’s no doubt it was a tough draw for us but it’s also very, very exciting. These are the kind of games that any player wants to be involved in and, if we can get through, I think everyone will sit up and take notice.”
Bamba was referring to the impact of qualification on Côte d'Ivoire, but he could equally have been speaking about the potential for himself to truly arrive on the world stage. After all, he will touch down in South Africa as one of Les Elephants’ lesser-known players, having spent the last four seasons with Dunfermline Athletic and Hibernian. As well as developing a distinct Scottish accent during that time, the former Paris Saint-Germain defender has slowly but surely earned a regular place in the Ivorian reaguard, with his partnership with Kolo Toure crucial to the success of a defence that conceded just six goals in 12 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
“I don’t like to speak about myself but I do feel that I have a good partnership with Kolo,” said Bamba. “We had a good defensive record during qualifying and I also played all of the Cup of Nations matches beside him, so we’re well used to each other now. For me, it’s a pleasure to play beside Kolo because he has so much experience. He’s also fantastic at talking to me during games and afterwards too, just to give me some advice.”
Toure may be the senior partner in their defensive pairing, but it is likely that the Manchester City centre-half is every bit as excited at taking part in this historic FIFA World Cup, the first on African soil. Bamba certainly makes no attempt to downplay the significance of carrying the continent’s hopes next month, nor to disguise his delight that South Africa was chosen to throw the beautiful game’s biggest party.
“The fact it’s in Africa definitely makes it more special for us,” he said. “With it being the first African World Cup, everyone in our team was so desperate to get there. I’m sure all the African teams feel the same, and I think every one of us has a chance to do well at this tournament. It will depend who is on form but I think the African teams are all strong enough to make a big impact.
"I really hope the whole tournament is a big celebration for the whole continent. It’s important that Africa shows that it can make a great job of hosting a huge tournament like this, especially as this is the first one. I really believe it will be a big success. South Africa is a beautiful country, a great country, and I think it was a really good idea to give them the World Cup. I think it’s going to be fantastic.”