Leading up to the World Cup, the Ivory Coast is one of the smaller nations capable of making a run deep into the knockout stages. The Elephants have a load of talent on their roster that has the potential to upset the balance and knock out traditional tournament favorites come early July.
The Elephants travel to the southern tip of Africa having fallen out of the African Cup of Nations in the quarterfinal at the hands of Algeria. The surprising defeat in extra time early in the tournament, however, served merely as a minor setback for the Ivory Coast, which had already qualified before the Cup even started.
A more major setback for the Ivorians was suffered when the group draw for the World Cup was announced on December 4. The Ivory Coast is in the so-called “group of death” in 2010, competing against two soccer heavyweights, Portugal and Brazil.
Portugal: June 15
Brazil: June 20
Korea: June 25
Expected to dispatch North Korea in the final match of Group G, the real test for the Ivory Coast will come in its first two matches. First, the Elephants will face off against Cristiano Ronaldo and an experienced Portugal squad in Port Elizabeth. The Portuguese national team barely qualified for the World Cup, having to compete in the qualifying play-offs, but is laden with world-class talent, headed by Ronaldo.
Then, five days later, the Elephants will battle one of the heavy favorites in this year’s field, Brazil. Led by Julio Cesar, Kaka, Robinho, and Luis Fabiano, the Brazilians have the speed, chemistry, and depth needed to go the distance. The Ivorian defensive line will have its hands full trying to slow down the Brazilian attack.
Despite the prowess of its star-studded opponents, the Ivory Coast has talent of its own that can match up against the big-name Portuguese and Brazilians. Both matches, as well as the final group match against the North Koreans, should be highly entertaining as both sides display their attacking ability.
The Ivory Coast team is led by Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, the focal point of the Ivorian attack. The 32-year-old has compiled a staggering 43 goals in 66 national team appearances, including six goals in five World Cup qualifying matches this past year.
Drogba’s form has carried the Ivory Coast ever since he first appeared for his country in 2002 and, in order for the Elephants to compete in the group stage and beyond, their emotional leader and best player must be at his greatest.
Behind the team’s capable forwards, Drogba and his Blues teammate, Salomon Kalou, the Ivorian midfielders have the skill and touch to supply Drogba and Kalou with consistent service, but are especially adept at stifling opposing midfielders.
Didier Zokora of Sevilla and Yaya Touré of Barcelona, arguably the best pair of defensive midfielders in the tourney, head their line as they compete against the likes of Ronaldo, Kaka, and Felipe Melo.
Continuing the stifling defensive mentality of the Ivorian midfield is the team’s defensive line, renowned for its speed and toughness in the back. While their most well-known defender is Kolo Touré of Manchester City, a physical stopper who accepts the challenge of marking the opponent’s best forwards, the Elephants are loaded with capable backs.
Stuttgart’s Arthur Boka and Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboué are just two serviceable defenders at coach Sven-Goran Eriksson’s disposal.
The Ivory Coast has a variety of dependable players, from strikers to defenders, who have made names for themselves for the biggest clubs in the world. This will give the team much-needed experience on soccer’s biggest stage in South Africa.
Strengths and Weaknesses
There is no doubt that one of the Elephants’ biggest strengths is having a striker of Drogba’s caliber, who has proved that he can score in pressure situations for club and country. His goal-scoring record in the EPL and Champions League will give his fellow forwards confidence as they compete against the game’s best defenders.
An under-appreciated advantage that the team has is its aggressive defensive mentality. The Ivory Coast team possesses a collective understanding of the importance of aggressiveness off the ball and how it can disrupt even the best on-the-ball players (who the Ivorians will have to face). More importantly, though, Sven-Goran Eriksson has the players capable of executing this kind of defensive game plan.
One glaring weakness that the Ivory Coast must find a way to overcome is its lack of creative midfielders to support the defensive-minded ones already present. The Elephants do not have a Xavi or a Kaka that can break down opposing midfielders and deliver a well-timed pass to a striker in front of them.
They do not have a link between an attacking midfielder and a striker, unless Drogba drops back slightly behind Kalou. This, however, would minimize Drogba’s effectiveness in front of goal, and would ultimately minimize the team’s ability to score goals.
A more minor disadvantage could be a potential disconnect between the players and manager. Eriksson was only recently appointed manager of the team, after Vahid Halilhodžić was surprisingly fired in late February, so there has not been a consistency at the head of the team. It still remains to be seen whether Eriksson will connect with his players after having served only three months as manager.
It Would Be a Great World Cup If…
The Ivory Coast gets out of its group and reaches the quarterfinals. The Elephants are an extremely talented and explosive group that has the potential to challenge the likes of Brazil, Italy, or even the loaded Spanish side that they could very well meet in the second round.
Having been tabbed as a squad that could upset the favorites, it would be a successful World Cup campaign for the Elephants if that potential was realized and they made some noise in early July.
It Would Be a Disaster If…
The Ivory Coast struggled in its group and lost against both Portugal and Brazil. Even though the Ivorians are competing in the “group of death,” there is enough talent on their roster to be able to draw against Portugal, if not beat them.
If they fail to do so, and then lose to Brazil, as expected, there is little hope for them to reach even the second round. And, this, for a team with enough talent to reach the quarters, would be a huge disappointment, especially playing on its home continent.
It is difficult to predict how the Ivory Coast, a perennial African powerhouse, will do against the world’s best on the biggest possible stage. It could be a success, but it could very well be a disaster as well. The Elephants are that unpredictable.
However, the under-appreciated talent on their roster, as well as one of the game’s biggest stars, should be enough to carry the Elephants against the heavyweights. These two factors, as well as the obvious camaraderie exhibited by the starting eleven, will be crucial for the Ivorians as they travel around South Africa.
Considering that they are in such a tough group, a lot rides on how well the Elephants fare against Portugal and Brazil. If they get the needed results from these two matches, the Elephants will continue their march into the quarterfinals and beyond. If they do not, expect another early dismissal in the first round.