Greece Defeat Encapsulated Golden Generation's Flaws

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Greece Defeat Encapsulated Golden Generation's Flaws
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

For a third consecutive World Cup, the Ivory Coast have fallen at the first hurdle.

Whilst in 2006 and 2010 they were drawn in fiendishly difficult groups, 2014 ought to have been the occasion to break the hoodoo.

When push came to shove, all the Elephants needed to do was avoid defeat against a limited Greece side in Fortaleza. Even this, they couldn’t achieve.

Along with the Ivorians’ summer hopes, the “Golden Generation” tag that has followed a select collection of players for a decade must surely end today. As they proved once again, for all of their magnificent individual qualities and their club-level successes, this feted group of players have never been the sum of their parts when brought together and wrapped in orange.

In the decisive match with Greece, the side’s various failings once again came to the fore. The contest was every failure that this Ivorian team have endured over the years, every missed opportunity, every defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

In many ways, the final fling in Fortaleza encapsulated many of the Elephants’ flaws.

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At club level, Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure in particular have made a habit of rising to the occasion. Toure was influential in bringing not one but two Premier League titles to Manchester City by dragging his team through close clashes and rising above mediocrity to settle a tight match.

Drogba, famously, was almost single-handedly responsible for Chelsea’s sole Champions League win by scoring a late header against Bayern Munich, before netting the winning penalty in the shootout.

To a lesser extent, Gervinho and Salomon Kalou have been known to inspire AS Roma and Lille, respectively, over the past 12 months.

Yet when the Elephants are drawn together, such individual accountability is remarkably rare.

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In the last five Cup of Nations tournaments, the Elephants have fallen at the final twice, at the semi-final once and at the quarter-final twice.

In these five decisive matches, none of Drogba, Toure and Gervinho have risen to the occasion and scored a goal.

It was a similar story this summer.

There are caveats, of course.

Drogba is 36, and despite his fine recent international scoring record, he was unable to trouble the Greeks or the Colombians.

Toure underwent an operation at the end of the season and has looked a shadow of his City self. Yaya, and his brother Kolo, also had to endure the death of their younger brother, Ibrahim, earlier this week. I certainly cannot imagine the mental strain that such a tragedy can put upon someone and find it impossible to understand how the pair could have been in a fit frame of mind to star in such a tense match with such great consequences after having experienced such heartache.

The impotency of the side’s key figures against Greece was remarkable. The side were enveloped in a lethargy and an apparent apprehension of attacking a team that, following two early injuries and a limited offensive threat, was there for the taking.

Michael Steele/Getty Images

The Elephants have seemingly frozen too often in the past to move forward without the weight of such previous failure. One can almost imagine the self-doubt gnawing away at Gervinho as Greece opened the scoring in the 42nd minute and then went on to strike Boubacar Barry’s woodwork on a number of occasions.

The collective have been so exhaustively battered by past failure and mounting expectations (even if the anticipation has trailed off recently) that on evenings like this, the jitters are certain to creep in.

There is a worrying air of inevitability about the Elephants at any kind of grand occasion, and it has become apparent they lack the characters to put the dismay and regret to one side and reaffirm the self-belief among a talented collection of players.

The squad is populated by a few too many emotional characters. Drogba and Gervinho are two, but during the tournament, Serey Die was also caught in tears during the singing of the national anthem. The midfielder’s display in that game (the second match against Colombia) was laced with error, including the crucial blunder for the Cafeteros’ winning goal, and he was replaced with 20 minutes still to play.

Die’s error was imitated against Greece when his midfield partner Cheick Tiote's momentary lapse led to the opposition goal.

In defence, the likes of Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora, another who has lost a brother tragically, might be “experienced," but as the pair have proven time and time again, experience and dependability are not synonymous.

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These two, as well as Sol Bamba and Copa Barry, have been at the heart of another critical problem for the Elephants, and one that again proved fatal.

While the Ivorians’ offensive line boasts talent that would rival almost any other nation on the planet, the defence has grown far too untrustworthy and volatile.

It wasn’t always this way—the Elephants famously went through the 2012 Cup of Nations without conceding a single goal—but it is something that Sabri Lamouchi’s successor will need to address as a matter of urgency.

Bamba and Toure have similar failings, and while Zokora helps to compensate for these when played alongside either man, he lacks presence and is, after all, a 33-year-old converted defensive midfielder.

The Greece match was the 11th consecutive game in which the national side have failed to keep a clean sheet. Even against a forward line as limited as that of Ethniki, they looked jittery and uncertain. It is a desperate record, but unfortunately, unlike Cameroon for example, there isn’t immediate evidence of green shoots emerging in the centre or in goal.

What makes the defeat to Greece and the inability to advance from Group C all the more bitter is the fact that Costa Rica lie in wait.

The Central Americans must not be underestimated, and indeed, they will provide a stern test for whoever they meet in the last 16, but they would at least have represented beatable opposition to the psychologically fragile Ivorians.

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The prospect of becoming Africa’s fourth-ever representatives in the quarter-finals was a very tangible reality.

It is one that will, however, remain a dream...eternally so for several members of the celebrated collective. Drogba won’t be back at the high table, nor will Kolo Toure or Zokora. Boubacar Barry and Arthur Boka, both with 83 caps, are also likely to be heading toward the end of their international careers.

Whoever takes the hot seat will be charged with more than just replacing these players. They will need to rebuild the confidence of those who remain and to reassure the shattered confidence of a whole collective.

As the prospect of World Cup glory becomes an unfulfilled dream for the Golden Generation, so the Golden Generation must become a faded, forgotten memory for the Elephants moving forward.

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