The Elephant in the room
Widely touted as Africa's great hope ahead of the first World Cup to grace the continent, Ivory Coast may well approach this summer's finals with trepidation following their disappointing quarter-final defeat to Algeria in the African Nations Cup. It is the elephant in the room for the Elephants - will potential and talent ever translate into success?
There is little doubt that the current crop of Ivorian players - led by Didier Drogba and the two Toures, Yaya and Kolo - represents a golden generation but, as ever, that tag brings with it a weight of expectation. It proved a millstone around the neck of the famed Portugal side that won the World Youth Championship of 1991 with Luis Figo, Manuel Rui Costa, Joao Pinto, Jorge Costa et al failing to replicate that success in the senior game. England have optimistically declared the arrival of a golden generation every couple of years, only for success to remain elusive.
The same fate may await the Elephants. After drawing their opening fixture against Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast reached the last eight in Angola courtesy of a 3-1 win over Ghana but their campaign came to an abrupt end with a 3-2 defeat by fellow World Cup hopefuls Algeria on Sunday. That is now three Nations Cups in succession that the Elephants have failed to live up to expectations and their sole victory in the biannual competition was way back in 1992.
A group of death prevented Ivory Coast from reaching the World Cup knockout stage four years ago and with both Portugal and Brazil awaiting them in South Africa, it must be feared that a repeat is on the cards. Africa's finest team they may be, but for all their star quality the Elephants have yet to demonstrate that they will avoid joining a long list of teams that failed to fulfil their potential. With Drogba turning 32 in March, time is running out.
Coming so soon after the attack on Togo's team bus in Cabinda, the news that Paraguay striker Salvador Cabanas was shot in the head in a bar in Mexico City has shocked football once more. Cabanas is in a serious condition and the bullet has not been removed from his head for fear of causing further damage. It is heartbreaking news for a player who top scored with six goals in Paraguay's successful qualification campaign.
Club America released a statement that read: "We deeply regret what happened to our beloved player Salvador Cabanas and express our full support and solidarity with his families and loved ones. The directors, coaching staff and players are very attentive to his progress. Beyond being a great player, Salvador, you are a great companion and in these difficult times we are on your side in body and soul.''
The powerful lure of the World Cup has been in evidence in recent days with both Ruud van Nistelrooy and Robinho citing this summer's tournament as the prime motivation behind their respective exits from Real Madrid and Manchester City. Van Nistelrooy is not even in the Dutch squad having retired from international football in August 2008 but, sniffing a final chance of glory, hopes his move to Germany will convince Bert van Marwijk he merits a place in the Oranje squad. "I want to deliver the goods in the shirt of Hamburg and to win things with this team," said Van Nistelrooy. "I hope the Dutch selectors will contact me again so I can take part in the World Cup."
Robinho was equally transparent when explaining to Roberto Mancini he needs to make Brazil's Selecao. "What's important is to be happy," Robinho said. "Money is not everything. Mancini said that I would play one game and not in another. I didn't accept that and told him so. It's a World Cup year." It seems representing your country on the biggest stage of all trumps anything else at present.
PLAYER IN FOCUS: Theo Walcott
Normally it is the intention of this column to highlight those players who look likely to light up the tournament in South Africa. But this week, it is a name who appears to be on the wane. Arsenal's FA Cup defeat to Stoke marked only Walcott's fifth start of a season that has been plagued by injury and, again, he looked a shadow of the sprightly teen who terrorised Croatia when scoring a hat-trick in Zagreb in September 2008. Fitness problems have undoubtedly had a telling impact on the forward but he still frustrates with his lack of a final product. Once heralded as the next great hope, Walcott is now behind Aaron Lennon, David Beckham and James Milner in the England setup, and possibly Shaun Wright-Phillips too. It was a miracle that he went to the 2006 finals having never played for Arsenal, and it may require another leap of faith from Fabio Capello - a man who usually deals in cold, hard logic - if Walcott is to travel to South Africa.
WORLD CUP QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Brazil midfielder Felipe Melo responds in pretty ungracious terms when being informed that Argentina coach Diego Maradona described him as one of the revelations of the World Cup qualifying campaign. "It was a very great honour because he is one of the two greatest players in the history of the game," Melo told fifa.com. "If he were playing today, he'd still put on a show. Naturally, it made me very happy. To be honest, though, I'd really like Pele to give me some praise. After all, Maradona is Argentinian, isn't he?" Clearly Melo hasn't been paying attention to Pele's track record with glowing recommendations.