x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Ivory Coast's golden generation 'Elephants' have reasons to forget

It is an elderly Ivory Coast side, with half the 23-man squad over 28 years old, that hunts for silverware at the African Cup of Nations. Time is running out for the Elephants.

Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba, left, knows that at age 33, this may be his final chance to win the African Cup of Nations.
Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba, left, knows that at age 33, this may be his final chance to win the African Cup of Nations.

ABU DHABI // Ivory Coast will arrive at the African Cup of Nations as favourites to win the tournament yet, following 20 years of disappointment, the country's much-vaunted golden generation appreciate this could be their last chance to complement high praise with a trophy.

"The Elephants" have not won a trophy since the Cup of Nations in 1992, and this year more than half of Francois Zahoui's star-studded 23-man squad for the month-long tournament in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea are over the age of 28.

Didier Drogba, the captain, will turn 34 shortly after the February 12 final. The end of his glittering career has never loomed so prominently on the horizon.

"I am 30 and most of the team is around 30, so of course it is more important," said Kolo Toure, the Manchester City defender.

"We have to try and win this tournament because it is the only thing missing in our record. We have been to the World Cup twice, but we know winning the World Cup is difficult. With the players we have, though, we know we're able to win the African Nations, and if we don't win it will be a very bad thing for us. It's going to be a massive tournament for us again."

At the 2010 competition in Angola, the team were eliminated in the quarter-finals after slipping to a 3-2 extra-time defeat to Algeria. For a country that reached the final in 2006 and the semi-finals two years later, it was a disappointment.

This year, Zahoui's men, who are ranked 16th in the world by Fifa, have been drawn in a group alongside Sudan, Angola and Burkina Faso, none of whom are higher than 62nd. They should also be able to avoid Ghana, Africa's strongest team at the World Cup in 2010, until at least the semi-finals.

Yaya Toure, Kolo's brother, who also plays for Manchester City, said it is too early to make predictions, but the pain of two years ago is still raw.

"We hope this year will be our year," he said. "We have failed three times, but we hope this time will be different because it is always so difficult.

"All the players play in Europe and we know in Africa it is different; the weather, the field, everything. We have to fight.

"The quality is not enough. If we speak about the quality, we have fantastic quality and fantastic players that can make a difference, but we need a fighting spirit, too, because in Africa it is so difficult.

"We have to show courage in order to go forward and progress in this competition."

Drogba, who has scored 50 times in 75 games at international level, is likely to be joined in attack by his Chelsea teammate Salomon Kalou, who appears to be finding form at the right time. The 25 year old scored in both of his country's exhibition matches in Abu Dhabi this month and said his goal is to maintain that run and finish the tournament with "eight goals in eight games".

"There are big expectations, because everybody says that with the players we have we should win it easily, but, you know, there are no small games anymore, and we have to respect everyone and play our best," Kalou said.

"The only way of putting ourselves in trouble is to not pay attention to every team. If the small team qualifies and the big team doesn't, the only reason can be because the small team is good.

"We have to respect everyone and we have to play 200 per cent, as if every game is the final."

Last year, the country's disputed presidential elections saw the Ivory Coast plunged back into a state of civil war, which left more than 3,000 people dead. The nation's football team now hopes to bring more positive news back to their homeland.

"It's going to be massive for all the people in Ivory Coast," Kolo Toure said. "They have been suffering so much, so can you imagine the players bringing them this trophy. It's going to be massive for the country, the people, our family and for all of us as well.

"It would be great for us to take this trophy back to them as a way to help forget about this big trouble that our country has faced."

Ivory Coast start their campaign against Sudan on Saturday.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae