On August 8th, 2014, Didier Drogba announced his retirement from international football. Ivory Coast’s greatest soccer star (his record 65 goals will stand for a long time, no other Ivorian has half as many), had decided World Cup 2014 had been his final few matches in a Les Elephants shirt. As the frontman of Cote d’Ivoire’s Golden Generation, the 36-year-old’s retirement was the end of an era – an era that will be defined by disappointment rather than triumph. You know the song in Dumbo, “When I See an Elephant Fly”? Well, these Elephants never got off the ground.
This is a shame, because Ivory Coast’s Golden Generation was filled with electric talent that has been good enough to start on European top-flight teams for the past decade-plus. Let’s run through the cast of characters (not so) quickly, shall we?
You have Drogba, the immaculate combination of strength, speed, and charisma. He was the perfect central figure; already a star at Chelsea in London, which made him a known commodity while helping turn Ivory Coast into a respectable name in international football. As the striker, he scored the goals and was the face of the “franchise”.
If Drogba is Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, then the Brothers Toure – Kolo and Yaya – would be Johnny and Colin Greenwood, the indispensable duo that contribute more than you think. The elder Kolo was the first of the Golden Generation to prove he could hang in the Premier League. At Arsenal, he started to become a mainstay on their defense under Arsene Wenger beginning in the 2002-03 season. Yaya, the younger yet larger brother (he’s built like an NFL wide receiver), didn’t make his first appearance for Ivory Coast until 2004, but in just three years, he would be spending significant time on the field as an intimidating box-to-box midfielder for FC Barcelona.
With 122 appearances since 2000, defensive stalwart Didier Zokora is the most capped Ivorian of all-time. Starting his career in Ivory Coast’s top league, he eventually moved on to European powers (Saint-Étienne and Tottenham). Similarly aged fullbacks have had almost identical career arcs: Arthur Boka with VfB Stuttgart, Emmanuel Eboué with Arsenal, and Siaka Tiene with PSG. With over 80 caps for all four, Ivory Coast can’t complain about a lack of defensive continuity over the past decade.
Finally, you have the younger members of the Golden Generation, those still under-30 players forged on European club teams after Kolo and Drogba made their mark there. Forward Salomon Kalou had a six-year stint at Chelsea and sits fourth all-time for Ivorian goal scorers with 23. Attacking midfielder Gervinho (he of the strange hair) flopped at Arsenal, but now fits in comfortably for Italian side Roma. Swansea City’s Wilfried Bony has only been a regular national team contributor since 2012, but the 25-year-old has been significant for them in the last couple years.
Last but not least, we have the goalkeeper Boubacar Barry. Although shaky at times, he’s been virtually unchallenged for the Ivory Coast keeper position since the early-00s. The 34-year-old has 80 caps and has been Belgian club Lokeren’s keeper since 2007.
Those are characters who have played the biggest roles in Ivory Coast’s recent history. They all have found success in Europe’s top leagues, winning trophies with their respective clubs. Yet as a group for their nation: Nada. Not one Africa Cup of Nations, which is held every two years. They also have failed to even get out of their group in three straight World Cups. How does a team with this much talent oozing from all sides collapse time and again? Is it bad luck, poor chemistry, or a combination of both? Let’s take a look, starting in 2006.
2006 Africa Cup of Nations
In 2004, for the first time in over 20 years, Cote d’Ivoire didn’t qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations. Simply qualifying for the 2006 version had to be considered a success, but by the time the tournament started, the Elephants had an inspirational movie-ready storyline. In October of 2005, Ivory Coast qualified for their first-ever World Cup. During this time, a brutal civil war had ravaged the country since 2002. While the conflict was more political than violent by this point, Drogba and his teammates went on TV after qualifying and begged both sides to lay down their guns. A peace treaty wasn’t signed until 2007, but the national team served as a unifying force for Ivorians.
Although they became known as The Team That Ended a Civil War, Les Elephants and their Golden Generation would struggle to live up to their potential. The Africa Cup of Nations tournament was hosted in Egypt at the beginning of 2006. Ivory Coast snuck their way into the final after getting by a Samuel Eto’o-led Cameroon in penalty kicks, and then a 1-0 victory of Nigeria. However, a scoreless final would see them lose in penalty kicks to host nation Egypt. National hero Drogba missed the first kick.
2006 World Cup
For their inaugural World Cup, the Ivorians were handed a remarkably tough group with Argentina and the Netherlands. After consecutive 2-1 losses to those teams, the team would finish the group stage with a 3-2 win, which unfortunately wasn’t enough to advance. Still, at this point the future was bright. You would’ve been wise to predict a semi-deep run in one of the next two World Cups, or at the very least, a Cup of Nations title. Eight years later, they would have zero trophies nor would they have played in any World Cup knockout matches.
2008 Africa Cup of Nations
Even after the World Cup, Ivory Coast’s civil war would continue to shape how this team would be viewed. Before a Cup of Nations qualifier in 2007, Drogba suggested they move it to the rebel capital, Bouaké. In his Grantland feature on Ivory Coast, Jordan Ritter Conn writes that Drogba’s “message was clear: Rebel supporters are Ivorians too. To hell with politics — they had the same right as all their countrymen to watch Les Elephants play.” Surely a victory in the 2008 Cup of Nations could bring this country together like nothing else. The mounting pressure on the shoulders of this national team had to weigh more than a pregnant elephant.
The 2008 edition in Ghana featured a rematch with that Egypt team that defeated them in the 2006 final. This time it was much uglier though, with Ivory Coast going down 4-1 in the semi-finals. A two-goal loss in the third-place match versus Ghana finished off their disappointing campaign. Another semi-final reached, another missed opportunity.
2010 Africa Cup of Nations
Before the 2010 World Cup, Ivory Coast were looking to gain some momentum with their first Cup of Nations championship since 1992. It was not to be. The Algeria team that would go on to concede that last-second Landon Donovan goal in the 2010 World Cup defeated the Ivorians 3-2 in the quarterfinals. To make matters worse, Algeria had tied the match in the waning moments of the game; a gut punch for an Ivory Coast squad that had plenty of talent.
2010 World Cup
The first World Cup in Africa looked like the perfect time for Ivory Coast to announce their presence as a team to be reckoned with in world football. However, then they were promptly dropped into the undisputed Group of Death with Brazil and Portugal. After a draw with the latter, they would go down 3-1 to the former. Even following a 3-0 romp of doormat North Korea, the Ivorians finished third in their group. A respectable showing (4 points, +1 goal differential) considering their competition, but the Golden Generation was out before the knockout round again.
2012 Africa Cup of Nations
Cruising through the group round and knocking off host country Guinea (with goals from stars Drogba and Yaya Toure) in the quarterfinals, many had to think this was the year Cote d’Ivoire finally came through. A Gervinho goal in the semis vs. Mali lifted the Elephants to the finals for the first time since ’06.
After a scoreless 120 minutes, fourteen straight penalty kicks were converted by Ivory Coast and their opponent, Zambia. With the penalty spot a crater of dirt and grass, veteran Ivorian Kolo Toure stepped up for his team’s eight kick. His shot was stopped, but so was Zambia’s next. Suspense building, Gervinho, who looked like he wanted no part of this, shanked a kick past the right post. Zambia was sent into euphoria after their next penalty was converted and they went home with their first Africa Cup of Nations title. Somehow, the Ivory Coast missed out on glory yet again to penalty kicks.
2013 Africa Cup of Nations
Just a year later Africa convened again, in order to ensure the Cup of Nations never landed on the same year as a World Cup. Winning their group, the Ivorians were aging but still stocked with talent and capable of beating anyone. Facing a dangerous Nigeria team in the quarters, Newcastle’s Cheick Tioté knotted the match at one in the 50th minute. However, you can guess what happened next. In heartbreaking fashion, Nigeria’s Sunday Mba scored in the 78th minute, and Ivory Coast couldn’t find an equalizer. Nigeria would go on to win the whole tournament, which probably did little to ease the Ivorians’ pain.
2014 World Cup
All of these stomach-punch moments in big matches would pale in comparison to what happened during the 2014 World Cup. Placed in a manageable group that featured favorite Colombia, offensively-challenged Greece, and also-ran Japan, things were looking positive for Cote d’Ivoire, especially after their first game. In their opening match against Japan, the Elephants came surging back after an early Keisuke Honda goal to score in the 64th and 66th minute from Bony and Gervinho, respectively.
Since the Golden Generation began about eight years ago, some of the key characters have aged. Drogba was routinely coming off the bench as a super-sub, Kalou wasn’t always starting, and Kolo Toure, 33, was decidedly not the same player. Still, this team had enough talent to get out of the group and maybe further. In the next match, they stayed scoreless against Colombia until Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez took the lead a little over an hour into the game. Another Colombia strike in the 70th minute put Ivory Coast against the wall, even as an incredible Gervinho run pulled one back a few minutes later. It had to be disappointing to not get a point, but Ivorians everywhere had to feel good knowing they were most likely advancing with just a draw versus Greece.
Things didn’t start promising as the first half ended with an awful mistake from Tiote. The Ivorian defender practically gift-wrapped Greece the ball in his own end for an easy score. However, Gervinho and Bony would hook up for a crucial late game goal that appeared to punch Ivory Coast’s ticket. That was before tragedy struck with just seconds remaining in injury time.
In the cruelest of cruel turns of fate, Giovanni Sio (who had just subbed into his first World Cup match) “tripped” Greek forward Georgios Samaras in the box, causing the official to award Greece a penalty in the dying moments of the match. Of course Samaras finished and of course Ivory Coast were knocked out in the group stage once again – this time in the worst way imaginable. Replays showed Sio’s contact with Samaras’ leg was hard to spot; instead, it looked like Samaras had spiked the turf with his own boot, causing himself to trip. Greece had stumbled their way to advancing, while Ivory Coast were left in disbelief. They had won a match in all three World Cups, but never had enough fortune to advance.
Ivory Coast coach Sabri Lamouchi resigned immediately following the match. He was the latest in a long line of managers that couldn’t get this talented group to win. Many have seen chemistry as the biggest piece missing. Drogba grew up in France, the Toures and many others grew up in Ivory Coast; it can be tough to follow someone you may not see as solely Ivorian. Many have also questioned Yaya Toure’s commitment to his nation, noting lackadaisical play from the current national team captain.
Others have just blamed plain bad luck or an inexplicable curse. From what we’ve seen over the last eight years with this team, it’s hard to argue with that sometimes.
The Ivory Coast national motto is “Union – Discipline – Travail”. That last word sticks out to me. It’s an Old French word that means “painful or laborious effort”, but it sprung from the Latin term “trepalium”, which translates to “instrument of torture”. I think you know where I’m going with this.
Will the torture continue for the Ivory Coast? Their Golden Generation is winding down. Didier Drogba and Zokora have retired, the Brothers Toure are nearing their end, keeper Barry is in his mid-30s, as well as the core group of defenders. Still, a pipeline of talent keeps the Elephants afloat. Bony and 21-year-old right back Serge Aurier were standouts at the World Cup. Gervinho looked strong, too. They’ve even brought on French manager Hervé Renard, who defeated them in the 2012 Cup of Nations with that Zambia team.
These figures will keep the Ivorians relevant for years to come. Morocco 2015 is only a few months away now. Perhaps the Elephants can finally get off the ground.