x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Ivory Coast's golden generation have their big opportunity

The squad led by Didier Drogba and the Toure brothers have the chance to taste success by winning the African Cup of Nations against Zambia.

Kolo Toure is dreaming of a first African Cup of Nations winner's medal.
Kolo Toure is dreaming of a first African Cup of Nations winner's medal.

Kolo Toure has known big finals before. He has the full collection from his long and distinguished career in English football. Three FA Cups, all won; a League Cup, lost; a Champions League final, yielding a silver medal with Arsenal.

Tonight against Zambia will mark his second appearance in the last game of an African Cup of Nations. Toure turns 31 this year, and the championship of his continent feels like an overdue prize.

The Manchester City defender is the standard-bearer for Ivory Coast's so-called golden generation, more so even than Didier Drogba, the captain who was a latecomer to elite football. Tough Drogba is older than the senior of the Toure brothers, he was a later international debutant than Kolo Toure.

Kolo has been wearing the orange jersey for almost a dozen years. He was there, in his first big final, when the golden generation was born in 2006.

It was 13 years ago, the African Super Cup final, between the winners of the two major continental club competitions the previous year. Toure's club, the African champions Asec Mimosas met Tunisia's Esperance in Abidjan. The Tunisians appeared overwhelming favourites on account of their experience.

Asec, who had sold many of the previous season's stars, fielded a young side. Some Asec supporters, angered at the mass departures of so many senior players, boycotted the match.

It turned out to be an epic, and an epoch-making day. Asec, expansive and daring, took the lead. Then Kolo Toure, excellent up until the 87th minute, conceded a penalty for a handball.

Chokri El Ouaer, the Esperance goalkeeper, marched the length of the field from the opposite goal to take and convert it.

But in extra time Ivorian boys became men, and the young substitute Aruna Dindane won the match deservedly for Asec.

Most Ivorians remember that final as a watershed moment. Kolo Toure would be at the vanguard of a procession of talents who helped Asec to successive league titles and then very swiftly transferred to the major leagues of Europe. Boubacar Barry, who will be in goal for Ivory Coast against Zambia tonight, was in that Super Cup team.

Dindane would make his international debut the same day as Kolo Toure and play a further 66 times for his country.

Asec's famed academy would push many more of the current Ivorian squad to success in Europe, Yaya Toure, Didier Zokora, Emmanuel Eboue and Gervinho among them.

From time to time, as the golden generation grew up, strong characters, successful in their club careers, word would seep out of the Ivorian camp of discord between the Asec brigade and the others, who were often in a minority.

When Drogba clashed with Yaya Toure ahead of the 2006 World Cup, it looked like a symptom of that divide, though both players denied it was.

There is a diversity in the core group of Ivorians, and sometimes it is a strength.

Against a background of civil unrest in the country they represent, the collective purpose on the field of Christians like Barry and Muslims like the Toures has been held up as an example. Drogba comes from the south, the Toures from the north, uniting across a divide often fractured politically.

The 28th Nations Cup always looked like the best opportunity for the golden generation, many of them veterans of Ivory Coast's two World Cup appearances, in 2006 and 2010, to scratch an itch that has irritated them.

They lost the final six years ago to the hosts, Egypt, on penalties. Egypt beat them in the semi-finals in 2008; Algeria knocked Ivory Coast out in the quarter-finals two years ago. Neither of those nemeses, nor heavyweights Nigeria and Cameroon, qualified for 2012.

Evidently, past stumbles have made them careful. Les Elephants have been spectacular only in bursts in this tournament, but they have looked solid throughout. They have not conceded a goal in five matches so far. Kolo Toure, above all, will want his defence to stay impenetrable for 90 minutes more.