Ivory Coast enters their second World Cup campaign as Africa's strongest representatives, but unfortunately for "Les Elephants", they have once again been handed an unenviable task.Within their ranks, however, are a host of Premier League and La Liga stars, all of whom contributed to the team's smooth qualification to the tournament and have won medals at club level, so Brazil and Portugal shouldn't represent such daunting opposition.One of those stars is Didier Drogba, who looks set to miss the showpiece event after fracturing his elbow in a friendly with Japan this morning. The national icon is the undisputed king of the team and his presence is needed not only for scoring goals, but also as motivation and inspiration for others. Despite the quality of the Ivory Coast team, continental success has been hard to come by. The Nations Cup has only been won once, in 1992. And despite being favourites for the last two installments, "the Elephants" failed spectacularly, losing 4-1 to Egypt in the 2008 semifinals and 3-2 to Algeria in this year's quarterfinals.Sven Goran Eriksson, the once lauded but now maligned Swedish manager, has been placed in charge for the summer. The former England manager is believed to be earning $2 million for his minimum five game stint in the dug-out, but whether he can make any real impact in such a short space is yet to be seen. The Swede will no doubt try to install some organisation and discipline, but that is not the African way, especially when superstar players are involved.
WORLD CUP HISTORYThe country's one and only foray into World Cup football came in Germany four years ago. They were grouped with Argentina, the Netherlands, Serbia, and Montenegro; it was billed as the group of death. Two (2-1) defeats ended the Ivorian dream. However, a 3-2 win over Serbia in the final game brought some redemption.
SCHEDULE—Group GIvory Coast vs:
Portugal June 15th at Port Elizabeth.
Brazil June 20th at Johannesburg.
Korea DPR June 25th at Nelspruit.
This year's group is no more favourable than last time. Their first two games, just as in 2006, are against two footballing giants, and failure to get anything from either of those will result in another early exit.
While Brazil will be favourites, Portugal will realise they are in a battle with the African team for second place and a potential clash with Spain. There is nothing to fear from Portugal, as their recent results and form have been unimpressive—especially since Carlos Queiroz took over from Luis Felipe Scolari.
If Ivory Coast can show confidence in themselves and become the sum of their parts, then they may upset the established order.
When the Chelsea goal-scoring machine, Drogba, is in the right mood, he is a handful for anyone. His 44 goals in 67 internationals are an impressive tally. The Elephants' ambitions will be much harder to achieve without him, but the mantle will now need to be taken up by Soloman Kalou, Aroune Dindane, or Lille's 22-year-old striker Gervinho.
The Toure brothers, Kolo and Yaya, will form the team's spine—with the older playing in central defence and the younger, Yaya, dictating the play from midfield. The Barcelona midfielder will be expected to make more surging, dynamic runs than he does for his club.
Didier Zokora has been revitalised since his move from Tottenham to Sevilla FC last season. With Zakora sitting in front of the back four, Yaya Toure will have more time to roam.
ONE TO WATCH—Boubacar Barry
The Ivorian goalkeeper is an erratic performer. However, he is also capable of some acrobatic saves.
BEST CASE SCENARIO:
With escaping the group stage a realistic possibility, even without Drogba, a meeting with Spain should await in the next round. It could either spell the end of the line or extend the fairy tale.
WORST CASE SCENARIO:
In Germany, the Elephants exited early but were heroic in defeat. Another early elimination, no matter how admirable the scorelines or performances are, will not be well-received. A lot of money has been invested in Eriksson to deliver, and losing to both of the big guns will be a disappointment.
The game against Portugal should be the group's defining moment. Victory in Johannesburg would cement second place, but defeat or even a draw may end their adventure. It is too close to call.