After their 3-0 win over Korea DPR, Côte d'Ivoire's players were looking back – both at their first two matches in Group G and at their FIFA World Cup™ debut four years ago. After opening with a scoreless draw against Portugal and then falling to Brazil 3-1, Les Elephants needed to erode a massive goal difference advantage while hoping for a Brazilian victory over the Portuguese in the group's other match.
And while the players in the talent-laden Ivorian side reflected that the opener was where points may have been gained, they were unanimous in insisting that they had come a long way since Germany 2006. Drawn then in an even more difficult group with Argentina, the Netherlands and Serbia and Montenegro, the Ivorians showed their inexperience by falling behind to two early goals in each of their three matches. And though they came back to score in each and even beat Serbia and Montenegro in their last fixture, they have displayed much more solidity and guile over the past weeks.
Forward Salomon Kalou put the improvement down to a range of fundamental factors. "I think we had better preparation first," he told FIFA.com after scoring against the North Koreans. "We knew more what we were doing on the pitch when we went out and so we had better organisation. And as a team, we have grown up from the past World Cup. If we keep working hard, one day we will be at the top. You don't start at the top, you always have to work hard to get there."
Defender Emmanuel Eboue agreed that the side had matured, and said that they showed it in a difficult last game, in which they had to win by an almost impossible margin. "We have no reason not to be confident about our tournament," he said afterwards. "We won four points in a very difficult group. We are much better than four years ago. The difference is we play more as a team. We grew up together, and we feel like a team now more than ever."
We are much better than four years ago. The difference is we play more as a team. We grew up together.
One of the biggest challenges in trying to match or exceed Portugal's 7-0 thrashing of the Asians in the last round was a packed Korean defence that had five defenders and a couple of midfielders holding back throughout the match. For captain Didier Drogba, it was a trying but ultimately positive experience. "It was very difficult. There were at least four defenders all around us all the time, but we did well in any case," he said. "We managed to scored three goals against a lot of defenders, and North Korea are a good team. It's not easy when you know that you're almost out and you still have to concentrate and play well like we tried to do today."
Eboue agreed that it was an achievement to hit the net the three times, with Yaya Toure and Romaric scoring in the first half before Kalou's late third. "We did very well in a tough situation," he said. "It's so difficult to play against five defenders, but the strikers and midfielders did well and never stopped. We created many chances, and could have scored more, but we finished the game off, nobody is hurt, so we are happy."
Looking back at the might-have-beens at South Africa 2010, Kalou said the team were not down-hearted despite heading home after the first hurdle. "We ended on four points," said the Chelsea man. "We only lost to Brazil, so you know we are not too sad. In football you can lose against better teams or win against better teams, you can only do your best, which we did." Drogba agreed, before casting a shadow of regret on the opening draw against Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. "It wasn't an easy group of course. If we were a bit more ambitious against Portugal maybe we could have scored a goal and that would have changed the competition for us. But against Brazil I think we give them much respect for the ability they have. They deserved to beat us."
Veteran Swedish coach Sven-Goran Eriksson took the reins of the team just months before the finals, but he agreed that the Oranje of Africa are still on the rise. "This team is getting better and better, and their future in the world of football is great and they are going to go far," he said.