||ESPNsoccernet: World Cup
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
ESPNsoccernet: May 30, 9:03 PM UK
Talent pool's depth to be tested
Depending upon who you put the question to, Ivory Coast are either the unluckiest or most fortunate team to be competing at this year's World Cup.
After a qualifying campaign that had seen them head a group containing such heavyweights as Cameroon and Egypt, a 3-2 defeat to the Indomitable Lions in the penultimate match had taken qualification out of their hands.
A 3-1 victory away in Sudan was achieved with some ease but if Cameroon were to beat Egypt then all was lost.
With scores level in Yaounde, Cameroon were awarded a penalty four minutes into injury time.
Up stepped Pierre Wome who duly cannoned the spot kick off an upright and Ivory Coast celebrated a first ever trip to the World Cup finals in Sudan; the 'miracle of Omdurman' leading the locals to dub the success the 'divine qualification'.
Long after the celebratory hangovers had cleared a different sort of headache was presented to the Elephants when the draw put them in a group with Argentina, Netherlands and Serbia & Montenegro. Headline writers didn't have to look hard to find their Group of Death this time round.
For a lesser African side, making the knock-out stages against such odds would truly be mission impossible. But despite the huge task ahead of them, the West Africans have reason to remain optimistic.
Though never having qualified for a finals before, they bring to Germany a gifted crop of players, half of whom benefited from football educations in France, the country's former colonial power, the rest a direct product of the best football factory on the continent, the Academie ASEC MimoSifcom.
Founded in 1994 through the combined efforts of a triumvirate of Frenchmen - Phillippe Troussier, Roger Ouegnin and Jean-Marc Guillou - the centre, based just outside Abidjan, has produced a conveyor belt of talent that first fuelled the continental club success of ASEC Mimosas and then fed the European leagues.
Belgian club Beveren first acted as the gateway to Europe but now, though the majority of the Ivory Coast squad ply their trade in Le Championnat, their leading lights can be found in all the major leagues, furnishing the squad with invaluable big match experience.
The list of ASEC alumni include Arsenal duo Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Eboue, Aruna Dindane, Yaya Toure (Kolo's brother), another pair of brothers in Bonaventure and Salomon Kalou - the latter who failed in gaining the Dutch citizenship that could have led to the intriguing possibility of the pair facing each other in a group game this summer - and St Etienne playmaker Didier Zokora, and it is these players who form the core of the side.
Dindane, a quick-footed, skilful player with a penchant for dribbling, will form a formidable strike partnership with the more agricultural battering-ram style of Chelsea's Didier Drogba.
Between them they plundered 16 goals in qualifying. Dindane's club Lens and the English champions have seen both players improve this season. Bakary Kone and Arouna Kone, though not of the standard of the first pick pair, offer back-up that the other African qualifiers will cast covetous eyes at.
In central midfield, too, the Elephants are blessed. Paris St Germain playmaker Bonaventure Kalou and erstwhile Manchester United target Zokora epitomise the modern midfield player, capable of rugged ball-winning as well as launching high tempo attacks.
The fast emerging talent of Yaya Toure, tipped to achieve even greater things than his brother, adds further to the talent but the similar playing styles of the three presents something of a balance problem.
Whilst reluctant to do so, Kalou has been employed on the right wing in recent matches, thanks to his advantage of speed over the others, but a lack of natural width may prove problematic when trying to unlock top level European and South American defences.
One solution is the use of attacking full-backs in the form of Arthur Boka - dubbed in some hyperbolic quarters as the Ivory Coast's answer to Roberto Carlos - and Eboue, who has been a revelation since injuries forced a quicker than expected assimilation into the Arsenal rearguard.
The centre-back pairing of Eboue's team-mate Kolo Toure and Cyrille Domoraud bring a level of insurance against the team's natural instinct to attack and is as good as any to be found outside the few elite international sides.
The job of ensuring that the sum of the team's performance proves, as it will need to, greater even than the sum of these gifted parts falls to the wise, steadying hand of Frenchman Henri Michel. This will be his fourth crack at the ultimate prize with a fourth different country.
After taking Michel Platini's France to the semi-finals in 1986, Michel then led Cameroon (1994) and Morocco (1998) on less successful jaunts.
Once branded by Eric Cantona as 'one of the world's most incompetent coaches' his record and longevity in the game suggests otherwise and his experience will be a major boon for a side for whom Germany will be a relative step into the unknown.
Ivory Coast's recent history is one blighted by the deep scars of a bloody civil war that has yet to be resolved. The team's success led to a temporary laying down of arms and managed, for an all too brief moment, to unite the warring factions in celebration.
President Zogbo Seri even went as far as addressing a crowd that had taken to the streets, declaring: 'Our players have decreed the end of the war. The time for reconciliation has come.'
As well as to the hope of peace, securing a trip to Germany was also dedicated to Mama Ouattara, the coach of the national youth team and assistant coach to the full side who had collapsed and died during training in June 2004.
The Elephants undoubtedly have the potential to go on and achieve great things, as their stunning run to the final of this year's African Nations Cup aptly demonstrated. The production line of talent has produced a side set to peak this year and has won them plaudits from many experts in the game.
'If Ivory Coast can get out of their group,' predicted German legend Franz Beckenbauer, 'I can see them getting all the way to the final.'
That would be a shock of monumental proportions. Of a size that could only be matched, perhaps, by a herd of marauding Elephants.