Always the bridesmaid, Côte d'Ivoire still lacks champion touch at Africa Cup of Nations
And so it happens once again. Côte d’Ivoire arrive rippling with intent and they leave without the spoils.
Last year in Gabon they were denied victory in the final by a Zambia side eager to pay tribute to their own golden generation lost in a plane crash in 1993 just outside the Gabonese capital, Libreville.
This year in South Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, boasting some of the most famous and garlanded African footballers, were thwarted by a Nigeria side that were their juniors in every department.
Nigeria skipper, the veteran defender Joseph Yobo, hinted on the eve of the clash that the lack of eminence could be a boon. And he was right. His young charges bristled with brio and energy as they toppled their so-called superiors.
African football appears obsessed with golden generations. The Zambians – until the final victory last year – mourned the 18 players who died in the Atlantic, their promise never to be fulfilled.
Nigerians look back to the time two decades ago when they set the tone and style of football on the continent. Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi, himself a former international from that era, says those standards can return. But it will take time.
Nigeria haven’t won the Cup of Nations since Keshi’s playing days in 1994 and when striker Rashidi Yekini was in his pomp.
Emmanuel Emenike’s thunderbolt drive from 30 metres which gave Nigeria the lead against Côte d’Ivoire would have made Yekini proud. But what will particularly encourage his former team mate is the collective maturity Nigeria showed in the quarter-final.
Perhaps Keshi’s tyros played with freedom because they felt they had nothing to lose, having been judged the smaller team. Against Mali in Durban on Wednesday, Nigeria will be expected to deliver, having fried the biggest fish of them all.
In the days before the semi-final, Keshi will have to douse expectations that progress past Côte d’Ivoire has brought forth a new Nigerian golden generation.
But what now for the Ivorians? Surely the 2013 tournament has to be the last one for Didier Drogba and Zokora? They’ve been the dominant forces through two World Cup campaigns as well as the Cup of Nations since 2006.
Is it time to rebuild the team around Yaya Touré and invest in the lanky but raw talent of Lacina Traoré? And what of coach Sabri Lamouchi?
He was appointed after François Zahoui was deemed inadequate following the march to last year’s final. Lamouchi hasn’t even emulated his predecessor.
Do the executives at the Ivorian federation go medieval on the former France international or do they give him the time they so saliently didn’t afford Zahoui?
Lamouchi appeared to be travelling along the right lines during the competition in South Africa. Drogba was translucent in the game against Togo and he was dropped from the starting line-up for the second Group D game against Tunisia. The Ivorians swept past the north Africans, Drogba entering late in the match after it was effectively won, to help create the final goal of the 3-0 rout.
Drogba was back at the front for the largely ceremonial game against Algeria; Côte d’Ivoire were already Group D winners and Algeria out. Drogba scored one as his side drew 2-2.
He was restored as skipper for the quarter-final against Nigeria, but often left isolated as the team slumped. It could be his last game for the Elephants at a Cup of Nations.
But there are mitigating circumstances. “ Côte d’Ivoire lost the 2006 final in Egypt to a very good Egypt side,” says Jonathan Wilson, editor of the British football magazine The Blizzard:
“The Egyptians were a strong team who went on to win the next two Cup of Nations. But since the demise of the Egyptians, we’ve expected the Ivorians to win and if you’d told me back in 2006 that in seven years time, you’ll be going to a Cup of Nations wondering if the Ivorians would ever win anything, I’d have said you’re crazy. I couldn’t see any way that they couldn’t win it. And yet they haven’t.”
The fear now is that the incompetence has calcified. “Not winning has created demons and doubts,” adds Wilson.
And those will certainly be there in another two years if they qualify for the next tournament.
Drogba hasn’t yet made any announcements about his international future. Some will say his halcyon days are well behind him, the best service he can render his country is by offering his considerable experience and nous to his forward line heirs.
“He’s probably the greatest player in the country’s history", says Wilson. “And although he’s done extraordinary things, not just for the football team but also for the country, in his work reconciling the disparate parties in the civil war, he knows that in the 2006 final with 10 minutes to go he missed a sitter and then he missed his penalty in the shoot-out.
He knows last year he missed a penalty with 20 minutes to go. But if he’d had scored that penalty – if he hadn’t missed that sitter in 2006, they would have won it. He must feel a level of personal responsibility which isn’t entirely fair because he has been a superb player for them. But on those two key moments, he failed.”
Drogba’s team mates will cast covetous eyes as others lift and parade a crown that they were told was theirs to hold.
But it was never their birthright. And instead of a story glittering with glory, it’s become a protracted descent into misery. The brutal truth is that some of the most gifted players in Ivorian history haven’t – collectively - produced. Certainly they’ve been consistent: two finals, one semi and two quarter-finals in the last five tournaments are a testament to that, but they haven’t been champions.
After Zambia became the first title-holder champions since Algeria in 1992, to fall at the group stages, the Zambia coach, Hervé Renard, made comments in his valedictory sweep of interviews that may well appease disappointed Zambians back home but will inevitably gnaw at the grief of the Ivorians so spectacularly spooked in last year’s final in Libreville .
“It’s better to have been African champions once,” he grimaced. “It’s better rather than running after it for your entire life and never winning it.”