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June 15, 2010

Africa needs a hero

Bradley By Jeff Bradley
ESPN The Magazine

PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa -- Africa is ready for its moment. We learned this for certain Tuesday at cold and blustery Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, where Ivory Coast and Portugal played to a scoreless draw. In the 48th minute, when Didier Drogba began to warm up behind Portugal's goal, the crowd noise became deafening.

It seemed for the first time in this World Cup -- or perhaps for the first time since South Africa's Siphiwe Tshabalala scored for the host country in the opening game -- as if the sound of screaming voices rose above the drone of the vuvuzelas.

For the next 15 minutes, the crowd fixated on Drogba, the most famous of all the African football stars. It wasn't just fans of Ivory Coast's Elephants but South African fans, as well. They all stood and cheered his jogging and calisthenics. They got louder when he made his way toward the bench and coach Sven Goran Eriksson. And in the 66th minute, when Drogba entered the game, the whole world seemed to revolve around the Chelsea striker. One fan held up a sign that read, "Drogba, Make Africa Proud." And for the final 24 minutes of the match, Drogba, with a cast on his right arm, tried -- to no avail.

But even though Drogba did not score, or even get off a clean shot, there can be no question anymore -- if an African team makes a run, South Africa will get behind it.

Ghana's Black Stars spoke about it after their wild victory celebration after defeating Serbia. "We are playing for all of Africa," goal scorer Asamoah Gyan said.

Tuesday's game marked the end of first matches for the six African teams. The tally at the end of one round: a win for Ghana, draws for South Africa and Ivory Coast, losses for Algeria, Cameroon and Nigeria. African teams have scored two goals in six games.

Not a dream start, but far from over. Based on the performance by Ivory Coast, there's reason to believe the Elephants could be the African team to catch fire. Defensively, Ivory Coast gave Portugal very little. In the 11th minute, Cristiano Ronaldo hit the post from 35 after one of his signature cutback moves. But that was basically it. Defenders Kolo Toure, Siaka Tiene, Guy Demel and Emmanuel Eboue were exceptional. Defensive midfielder Didier Zokora won challenge after challenge. Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz said some of the challenges were "intimidation tackles." It worked.

In the African Cup of Nations in January, Ivory Coast was a disorganized team with players at each other's throats. It fired coach Vahid Halilhodzic and replaced him with Eriksson, who coached England to the quarterfinals in 2006. Eriksson is not universally loved, but on Tuesday the Elephants played like a cohesive team. They harassed Ronaldo, cut off entry passes and won aerial battles all over the field.

"I thought we were organized for all 90 minutes," Eriksson said. "Portugal, they have a very good team, but I thought we handled them well today. I think we should be rather happy. Rather proud. And to get Drogba on the field for 25 minutes, it's important for us. With a little luck, he could've scored. And he will be more ready next game."

The closest Drogba came to scoring came at 90 minutes when another substitute, Kader Keita, played a ball in to Drogba's left foot, but his timing was off and he was unable to release a clean shot on goal. The play drew Portugal's attention, though, because Ivory Coast had Portugal back on its heels in injury time but could never deliver an accurate final pass or a clean finish.

Eriksson, however, said his team will take the point and move on. Ivory Coast's next game is a tough one, against Brazil on Sunday. Its final group match will be against North Korea on June 25, the same day Portugal takes on Brazil. This is considered the Group of Death, and it looks as if it will play out that way until the end.

"You never know in the next round, how important the first result is," Eriksson said. "We hope it's important."

So does all of Africa.

Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.